After Brexit: why free movement is still the right demand

Posted: 24 September 2022

This article appeared in our magazine for Labour Party conference 2022

The end of free movement represents the biggest erection of borders in our recent history.

Until 2021, all European citizens had the right to live and work in the UK, and British nationals could do the same across the EU. The realities of hard Brexit leave us with strategic questions to answer: what are we for, and is ‘free movement’ still the right framing for our demands?

Here, Michael Chessum (Tooting CLP) sets out LCFM’s perspective.

Awkward times

The Labour Campaign for Free Movement began life as a campaign in the context of Brexit. We wanted to prevent the erection of borders in the Brexit era (a task in which we failed) and to both deepen free movement rights and expand them beyond the frontiers of Europe: to “defend and extend” free movement. 

By and large, LCFM is a campaign run by socialists on the left of the party, and the years following the EU referendum were an awkward time for many of us. However much we talked about radical immigration policies and condemned Fortress Europe, the basic dynamic of that era was that we found ourselves campinging to defend the status quo against an insurgent right wing nationalist project. On the other side of the debate, many socialists – with whom we might otherwise have something in common – found themselves lining up with Aaron Banks, and performing intellectual acrobatics to justify Labour’s often reactionary immigration policies. 

Centrist Remainers and anti-free movement Lexiteers suffer from the same thing when it comes to immigration policy: a lack of imagination. Liberal anti-Brexit politicians were perfectly happy to back retaining European free movement, but baulked at the idea of free movement for everyone. Meanwhile, our detractors on the left often argued European free movement was racist unless we were willing to argue for open borders with the whole world, an idea they also regarded as too radical. 

Some history

LCFM is the campaign that argues unapologetically for global free movement. The fact that this seems such a radical demand is a failure of collective memory as much as anything else. Until just over a century ago, Britain had no immigration controls. It was only when the Aliens Act was introduced in 1905 – off the back of an anti-semitic campaign about Jewish immigration to the East End, shamefully endorsed by the TUC – that they were first introduced. Until 1962, Britain had open borders with the whole of the Commonwealth, and until 2021 with the whole of Europe. 

The historically contingent and ever-changing nature of Britain’s external borders tells you two things. Firstly, our immigration policy has essentially always been about domestic racism and scapegoating: against Jews (in 1905), black and asian migrants (1962) and eastern Europeans (2021). This should not surprise us: borders are in essence racist, an attempt to discriminate on the basis of arbitrary lines on a map. Secondly, immigration controls are not fundamentally about controlling the number of migrants entering the country. In 1905, immigration was very low and remained low for some years. In the years after the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, net migration remained at around the same (negative) level. In the immediate period after Britain’s exit from the EU, immigration actually increased. 

Immigration controls aren’t whether people come here – they’re about people’s rights when they get here. The rich will always have free movement, but working class immigrants find themselves subject to harsh restrictions. People who are “illegal” find it much harder to stand up for themselves or to be present politically. Workers who are reliant on visas and government permissions are much less likely to organise at work. From the perspective of bosses and right wing politicians, immigration controls are the perfect double-oppression: you get a scapegoat, and you get to suck militancy out of workers. 

A contested term 

We need to be clear that not everyone means the same thing by free movement. The European Union runs a barbaric border regime which is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean and untold misery for millions of people, many of whom are fleeing wars, environmental deterioration and poverty caused by European colonialism and carbon consumption. 

The existence of this border regime is not an accident. It is the conscious creation of European politicians, both in Brussels and in European capitals. In April 2019, the European Parliament passed legislation to create a standing army of EU border guards. Guy Verhofstadt, then the President of the centrist ALDE group in the EU parliament, celebrated the news. “For four years we fought to get a European Border & Coast Guard”, he tweeted. “EU countries were blocking, but we managed to get it done: 10,000 extra border officers. We should not wait for 2027, but do it now! We need to better protect our external borders to keep our internal EU borders open.”

We live in a capitalist society in which all kinds of barbarity seem mundane and normal. Our entire system of exploitation and impoverishment is underwritten by violence. Borders are even more extreme. When we talk about  a “hard external border” for Europe, we are talking about turning the Mediterranean Sea into a graveyard. Borders are barbarity at a distance. In the EU’s case, the border can be at a great distance, and this for many liberals makes it more palatable. 

For Verhofstadt and many other “progressive” European politicians, free movement is contingent on a regime of violence and coercion against poor and desperate people from the Global South. This attitude mirrors a classical liberal narrative about European identity. It is certainly true that economic integration and mass migration have created a great deal of progress in Europe since the Second World War, but without a more radical anti-border politics, the liberal vision becomes a nightmare: we simply replace a Europe of small, violent and racially exclusive nations by creating a large, violent and racially exclusive nation. While waving an EU flag might be a sign of anti-nationalism in the context of Brexit, it functions for some as a kind of supra-nationalism. 

Whose logic?

The European ruling class may have opened up their borders internally for their own reasons, but the reality of free movement was always going to create a space for a different kind of logic to emerge – a logic of human liberation, rather than supra-nationalism and profit-making. 

Bringing down borders within the EU challenged national identities and cultural conservatism across the continent. Giving migrants rights created the conditions for generations of workers to engage in industrial and social struggles without fear – or with much less fear – of deportation. The beneficiaries of free movement in the UK were overwhelmingly working class eastern and southern Europeans.

The “left” case against free movement very often falls into the trap of repeating a key trope of the far right: that European citizens are “all white”, and that therefore European free movement is in itself discriminatory. This is obviously untrue. There are large ethnic minorities within European states, who have benefited enormously from free movement. There are also a large number of African and Latin American migrants, many of whom have been active in industrial struggles, who hold French, Spanish or Portuguese passports. 

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, many on the Labour left sought to justify Labour’s opposition to free movement. For as long as we lived in a neo-liberal economy, they argued, free movement was just a means to exploit migrants. This argument – that we can bring down borders but only after we’ve abolished economic exploitation – is an insidious one and pops up in various guises among progressives performing intellectual acrobatics. At its heart is the same logic that tells LGBT people and women that they must wait until after the revolution for their rights. What it ignores is that borders are a moral stain and a humanitarian emergency. They are also a fundamental barrier to the effectiveness of working class movements.

Owning the libs?

Underneath the debates between the pro- and anti-free movement left is a philosophical difference about how we should interact with liberalism. Liberal rights – the right to move, the right to vote, the right to free speech – are limited on their own. But they point to something more radical and are a cornerstone of the working class’s freedom to organise. The question we face today, with the far right on the rise and those rights in retreat, is: do we try to take up the mantle of fighting for human freedom, or, alternatively, do we ally with a policy of border-building to ‘own the libs’? 

LCFM is the campaign that does the former, and our perspective ought not be controversial on the left. It is widely accepted capitalist development has brought a great deal of objective historical progress to the world, breaking down barriers, revolutionising production and changing politics. It also invented new forms of exploitation and oppression. We may fight for an alternative to capitalist exploitation, but it does not follow that we do so by turning back the clock to feudalism. It does not follow from a critique of European integration and the limitations of its free movement area that we should go back to a Europe of warring nation states and hard borders.

In the public debate – and in the debate within the left – free movement has become bound up with the legacy of neoliberalism. Open borders with eastern Europe coincided with the aftermath of Thatcherism and the devastation of working class communities in the north and midlands. The basic claim of the Brexit project was to blame migrants for falling wages and declining living standards. Some on the left see this picture and conclude that free movement simply is neoliberal; even Bernie Sanders once famously condemned open borders as a “Koch Brothers project”. Ironically, this is a conclusion entirely acceptable to orthodox neoliberals: that borders can only be open to people by being open to unregulated capital. 

In both global and European terms, the connection between open borders and neoliberalism is phoney. Neoliberalism wants free flows of capital, but the political and social system it produces is anything but “free”. Pursuing deregulation has resulted in the emergence of authoritarian regimes. To a greater or lesser extent, the poor (including migrants) are externalised, and the police militarised. In the Western world, the militarisation of borders has got a lot more intense in the past forty years, as have immigration raids and enforcement. The US border wall is one example of this. So is the massive border industry on Europe’s external borders, much of which is privatised and outsourced to neighbouring countries. 

Still the right demand

There is a temptation, from a left wing perspective, to look at the mess of European migration policy, ditch the free movement framework, and simply raise the slogan “no borders”. LCFM does agree with this slogan, but there is a version of utopianism which goes hand in hand with doing nothing. Even more tiresome is the idea that we need to “move on” from the debate around free movement because Brexit has happened: we can no more “move on” from the question of European free movement than we can change Britain’s physical location on the globe. Without a strategy for bringing borders down in a practical way, we will spend our lives triangulating around rising borders, or fighting noble but doomed battles. 

The question for us, then, is how we might actually start winning. The answer is not going to be clean. It will almost certainly mean riding on the coat-tails of trade agreements: insisting that people should never have fewer rights to cross international frontiers than goods and services. In other words, it is going to involve free movement agreements very much like EU free movement. Across Europe, and in areas likeMercosur and the Andean Community, these arrangements are already in place and guarantee the rights of tens of millions of migrants. 

Short of a global revolution, or general societal breakdown, borders will have to be ameliorated or reformed. The best hope for global open borders is always going to be the expansion and integration of free movement zones over an ever-greater part of the planet, and it is the job of the left to fight for this to happen. All free movement is good – regardless of the geography – but it is overwhelmingly likely that free movement areas will build up and expand on a regional basis. 

That’s why – alongside supporting migrant struggles, fighting the Hostile Environment and calling for the end of immigration detention – the cornerstone of our campaign remains fighting for free movement. This has two practical aspects: fighting for free movement to be written into all future trade deals, and fighting to re-enter Europe’s free movement area. Achieving this demand would benefit millions of workers, and form the basis for a campaign for global open borders.