Image: David Masson
Started December 2019 | Last updated February 2021
European Union Brexit official Guy Verhofstadt was shown in a 2019 TV documentary making an extraordinary defence of the current version of the free movement of people.
The free movement of people, one of the supposedly sacrosant four freedoms of the EU’s single market, morphed in 2004 into the unrestricted mobility of cheap labour when EU ‘Enlargement’ into Eastern Europe, led by UK ‘New’ Labour premier Tony Blair, allowed mass immgration to the UK.
Although widespread resentment of unrestricted immigration from Eastern Europe was one of the main causes of the leave result in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum, EU officials, in their post-referendum negotiations with the UK, held blindly to the untouchable indivisibility of the four freedoms.
As shown in Lode Desmet‘s fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary, Brexit: Behind Closed Doors (shown in the UK on BBC Four’s Storyville in May 2019), Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator and chair of the Brexit steering group for the European parliament, pompously and melodramatically – if unconvincingly – lectured a 2018 UK parliamentary home affairs committee on the supposed sanctity of the free movement of people.
MEP Verhofstadt – who, unlike fellow EU Brexit officials Tusk, Juncker and Barnier, was at least elected – duly preached the 4F credo to the committee:
‘You cannot pick and choose one element out of this concept and say, “We like everything, services, goods, capital, but not people. We don’t like people. They cannot come. Our goods can go out, our capital can go out, services can go out, but not people”. That is not the single market…
‘Everybody on the continent understands that when you’re talking about the single market, it can not only be the freedom of movement of goods or services or capital, but that it also needs to be the freedom of movement of people…
‘There are some countries in the single market who are specialised in goods. So they have an advantage on the single market with their goods. Some countries are specialised in services. I think we are here in the centre, in the capital of a country that is specialised, that has a huge advantage in services…
‘Other countries have an advange in that single market, because of their work force. And if you want to take out one of these elements, you destroy the concept itself of the single market.’
Transcript of edited scene provided by Lode Desmet, and ammended according to official report
In other words, rich west European countries could export goods, services and capital. Poor east European countries could export cheap labour. Anyone who challenged this – as, say, a mutant version of the original notion of the free movement of people, typical of neoliberalism at its grubby worst – was threatening to destroy the very concept of the single market.
Verhofstadt did point out that the UK hadn’t bothered to use the restrictions available under EU rules for EU citizens immigrating with no jobs – the same restrictions that his home country of Belgium had applied. Similar restrictions have been used by Germany and France.
This was a good point, but made too late. Grassroots dissatisfaction with unrestricted immigration from poor east European countries was a main reason for the referendum’s leave result. It was also the main reason for the ‘red wall’-turned-blue Conservative victory in the 2019 general election.
The London-centric UK liberal establishment – including the Labour Party – wrongly dismissed that dissatisfaction as ignorant provincial racism, and paid the electoral price. (See my post, ‘Brexit and free movement – the east European Elephant‘.)
The detail of Verhofstadt’s evidence to the home affairs committee (and earlier on the same day to the parliamentary Brexit committee) shows that he wielded statistics – as many UK liberals do – to loftily dismiss the scale and effect of unrestricted immigration from Eastern Europe to the UK.
Verhofstadt’s blind post-enlargement loyalty to the principle of the free movement of people as an essential component of the single market was intellectually shoddy. Such obstructionism, based in condescension and wilful ignorance, showed the arrogance typical of EU Brexit negotiators.
Perhaps that arrogance was a defensive reaction to the Brexistential challenge. Stronger negotiation by UK premier Theresa May might have countered that, but she weakened her position by calling the 2017 snap general election and losing her majority.
If the EU negotiators had looked beyond their offended sensibilities, and had understood and sympathised with the scale of UK grassroots resentment of post-enlargement mass immigration, they could have offered to reform the free movement of people. Assuming that a general election would still have been needed to decide how Brexit would be completed, ‘Red wall’ Labour leave voters might then have voted in the 2019 general election for Labour’s proposed second referendum, which might then have resulted in a decision to remain.
In spite of that, I don’t blame Verhofstadt. Apart from his overblown free movement bombast at the committee hearing and his complicity in the EU’s high-handed negotiating stance, he came across in Desmet’s documentary as a likeable Anglophile and a decent politician who – like all concerned – was out of his depth.
I blame Tony Blair, the UK premier who led EU enlargement in 2004. Blair must have foreseen the mass immigration of cheap labour to the UK when he pushed for EU enlargement, but like the 1948 patrician government that facilitated postwar mass immigration, he didn’t consult the people and apparently had no concern for the social wellbeing of either the immigrant or the host community.
(See my post about the racism provoked by such careless social engineering, Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct.)
In both instances, if the host community had been consulted, had agreed that large-scale immigration was necessary and had been prepared for two-way cultural integration, there might have been a more welcoming atmosphere.
The referendum, caused by grassroots pressure, was a direct consequence of Blair’s EU enlargement project. It was, in effect, the first UK public consultation on mass immigration. The people expressed their dissatisfaction and that was fair enough – but the result has left us out in the cold.
In a 2004 speech Blair said, ‘Enlargement will increase stability, security and prosperity‘. How wrong he was. He apparently realised how wrong he was and tried to make amends when, in 2017, he called on the EU to reform free movement to show leave voters that ‘their concerns are better met without the damage Brexit will do’. This belated appeal fell on deaf ears.
As a left-liberal supporter of internationalism and free trade, I voted in 2016 to remain. I hoped that the UK could reform the corrupt, bloated, neoliberal and over-bureaucratic gravy-train that the EU has become.
Instead, we now faced the double-whammy dystopian prospect of losing free trade with our neighbours, and having Boris Johnson’s US billionaire friends parasite the NHS and send us their chlorinated chicken and drug-riddled beef.
Amazingly, even after Brexit many of the liberal elite still agreed with Verhofstadt in supporting the unrestricted post-enlargement free movement of people. They should have learned their lesson: Blair’s neoliberal mobility of cheap labour was no freedom. It’s what brought us to this sorry state.