Chuka Umunna has kept more or less to the shadows since withdrawing last spring from the race for the Labour leadership – just three days after he announced his candidacy, when he realised to his horror that by running he might draw the attention of the press. He has remained politically active, but has largely carried himself within the confines of Westminster, chairing parliamentary groups and grandstanding during inquiries, while stealthily smearing the Labour leadership with accusations of anti-semitism.
He was one of the Labour figures who campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU. And he has criticised – like Jeremy Corbyn – the effect that leaving the EU is likely to have on workers’ rights. But as Theresa May and the Conservatives continue to hem and haw over the terms of Brexit – with Theresa May this week ruling out a points-based immigration system – Umunna has restated his belief that the UK can ‘square the circle’ when it comes to the EU and migration by effectively allowing free movement for only the well-educated and well-off. His proposal is that movement should be limited to those highly skilled workers who have already been offered a job.
As the freedom of movement exists across the European Union today, it does not entitle unemployed people to move country and immediately begin accessing social assistance. What the freedom of movement does allow is for any EU citizen to move to any EU country for a period of up to three months. At the end of those three months, they typically have to register with their host country, and in every case must prove either that they have found work, that they are actively searching for work, that they can support themselves financially without recourse to any assistance and have obtained comprehensive sickness insurance, or that they are studying and have sufficient financial support to cover their period of study.
In the case of the United Kingdom, migrants from the European Union who arrive without work are not entitled to social assistance such as Housing Benefit or Income Support. If after three months they can prove that they are actively searching for work, they must take the Habitual Residence Test before becoming eligible for up to three months of Jobseeker’s Allowance. If they have not found work after six months, their Jobseeker’s Allowance will cease and they will be required to leave the country.
If those actively seeking work are not able to do so over a reasonable period and with the sort of support they might receive back home, the EU cannot truly claim free movement of workers or a flexible labour market. The widely bemoaned phenomenon of ‘benefit tourism’ barely exists in reality, with only a very small number of EU migrants claiming non-contributory benefits. Across the EU, including within the UK, EU migrants are net contributors to the public purse.
And if those who seek no assistance, supporting themselves financially without being the least burden to their host state, are still not allowed to move without high skills and a job offer, the freedom of movement will no longer have any pretence to the name. We will have a situation whereby the only people allowed to move freely in the EU are ageing professionals already well established in their careers, the well-educated whose qualifications happen to make them ideal fits for narrow jobs, or the wealthy who can afford to travel for interviews or holidays at whim.
A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.