One of the mysteries of the Brexit debate ahead of the referendum was why David Cameron and the then home secretary Theresa May failed to point out that the British government has, under EU law, been in a position to “take control” of EU immigration in the same way as other member states have done. 

A recent analysis by the Centre for European Reform points out: “No EU citizen has a fundamental, unlimited right to move freely across the EU. To be lawfully resident in another (EU) member state, EU citizens need to be working, studying or able to prove they are self-sufficient. Otherwise they can be kicked out.”

The CER also points out that “the European Court of Justice has confirmed the right of member-states to refuse supplementary pensions, unemployment benefits and child credits to non-working EU migrants.” As a result “the EU is moving towards less, not more, access to benefits for EU migrants, precisely at the time Britain is leaving.”

As an EU citizen who has, without a specific job to go to, crossed the borders of a member state in order to work, I can vouch for the accuracy of this assessment. Moving to Belgium in 2003 without employment, my wife and I were asked by officials whether we already had work in Belgium and, if not, how were we proposing to finance our stay.

We had to show documentation to prove we had an adequate income and so to demonstrate that we would not start trying to claim on the Belgian social security system. We had to get Belgian identity cards. We also had to register with the local commune. A week after renting an apartment we had a visit from the local police who were checking that we were actually living there.

Before being allowed to make use of the (excellent) Belgian health service, we also had to register with the state-sponsored health insurance scheme. When we used it we were required to pay, up front, a significant, income-based fee which was refunded in full only to those deemed too poor to pay. In order to get treatment we had to carry and present at the doctor’s, or at a hospital, a social security card, not just a national identity card. The card had a computer chip which showed what contributions we had made and therefore what payments we had to make.

Quite why the British government did not enforce some of these requirements, as other EU countries have, is puzzling. One answer is that the British, with their commitment to civil liberties, have never accepted the concept of a national identity card. Google, Facebook or Vodafone may know precisely where a British citizen is in the UK at any moment of time, but not the government.

As a result the UK leaves itself open to unmonitored immigration, legal and illegal, from all over the world, not just the EU. As the Observer reported last Sunday, the government has not collected the information, nor put in place the systems, which will be needed to decide which EU citizens now living in the UK will have the right to remain as part of any agreement reached in the Brexit negotiations. 

The British themselves, governments of both parties, long ago decided not to “take control” of UK borders as EU law allowed them to. They did so in part because they did not want to face up to the political challenge of securing support for the introduction of a national identity card system or to spend the money setting up monitoring systems. So, in effect, the Brexit campaigners want to take us out of the EU in order to accomplish an objective much of which we could have achieved within it.

by Stewart Fleming | 21.02.2017 

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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