Freedom of movement between countries changed my life when I was growing up in Lincolnshire, and if it ends because of Brexit, the cost will be in human contact.
The UK government boasts that it will end free movement between the UK and the EU as soon as it can, which could be as early as 31 December 2020. This doesn’t bother some commentators, especially those who claim that freedom of movement only benefited the rich and became a source of resentment for “the working classes” in places like Ipswich and Lincolnshire.
I grew up in a village of 2,000 people in Lincolnshire, one of the most rural counties in England. But life in other countries was made real by our foreign holidays - meaning taking a caravan around different countries in Europe - and by family friends from other European countries who came to visit us, and even to stay and work. Added to that were school exchanges, and French and German language assistants who taught us their language and also about their life back home.
The life-changer for me: at 18, I got my first full-time job – in France. This wasn’t predictable – I was the first person in my family to work in another country – but it was surprisingly easy to arrange. Once I got the job I boarded a coach to Lyon and the next day was working, on minimum wage, for the local council supporting “town-twinning”, which brought together a small town near my home in Lincolnshire with Feyzin, a suburb of Lyon known for its oil refinery.
Neither were places attractive to foreign tourists, but the links developed between the towns brought so many different people together. Freedom of movement made it easy to arrange for musicians from a Lincolnshire brass band to play at a famous concert venue near Lyon, and for French artists to come to work in England.
And this openness stretched to partnerships with towns in Germany and Portugal as well, all linked by free movement. In Feyzin, I worked with Chilean refugees who had fled to France from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, showing me for the first time human rights abuses on the other side of the world, made real by their presence in my new home.
After returning to the UK, to university in Yorkshire, my life and knowledge of the world were immeasurably enhanced by students from around the world. So many came from other parts of Europe, because it was easy to study across the EU.
When I began working as a human rights lawyer – a world I doubt I would have discovered without that work experience in France – I learned that this ability to travel, live, work and study in other countries was not something that can be taken for granted. The EU’s guarantee of free movement is among the strongest in the world. It was that protection that made it easy for the young language assistants to work in rural schools like mine, and made it easy for me to live and work in France.
And importantly, the EU combines freedom of movement with strong guarantees for workers’ rights, to try to ensure there is no “race to the bottom” on employment standards when people work across borders. This system is not perfect, but these are basic principles and rights that have made so many lives better.
It’s a disastrous mistake to present freedom of movement as being primarily about economics and cost-benefits. It is above all about human connection.
If we lose this right after Brexit, it will not be the rich who suffer the most – they will still be able to travel, holiday and work in other countries with ease, fulfilling any income requirements for free movement. But millions of ordinary people with lives that cross borders are rightly worried by threats to free movement. If the government prevents people from moving and working and living together across borders, people from backgrounds like mine will lose millions of potential connections: future friendships, family relationships, and work opportunities. Ending freedom of movement is not inevitable after Brexit – it will be a political choice. It is time we celebrate freedom of movement, and work to save it.
Clive Baldwin is senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch.