The EU has finally admitted it needs Britain more than we need it

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, right, speaks with Britain's chief negotiator David Frost
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, right, speaks with Britain's chief negotiator David Frost

You will be able to work from the beaches of Ibiza, the cafes of Crete, or the cool startup hubs of Berlin.

The European Union’s big offer this week to restore a form of freedom of movement between the UK and the EU for 18 to 30-year-olds will certainly be welcome news for anyone who fancies a year or two abroad.

They would no longer need work permits or visas. They could just move to whichever EU country they wanted to.

But for those with a memory long enough to stretch back to the tortured debate over our departure from the EU from 2016 onwards – and the condescending lectures from the chief negotiator Michel Barnier – the EU’s offer will also have come as something of a surprise.

We were told during the Brexit negotiations that it was impossible to “cherry pick” parts of the EU package.

You couldn’t have single market membership or free movement, nor host its financial markets or take part in various programmes, without paying huge budget contributions and accepting its full rulebook.

Not only that, but the hardcore Remainers told us at insufferable length that the EU held all the cards, and that it would always out-negotiate us. 

There is a deafening silence from that quarter now. Less than four years later, the EU is back offering arrangements that were deemed to be completely impossible while we were in the process of leaving. We have already rejoined Horizon, and now a form of freedom of movement could be back as well.

But our answer in this case should be a polite “non”.

The offer tells us two things.

First, the EU has realised that it needs us far more than we need it. Brussels that has moved first, offering to restore a version of one of the major features of membership.

It no doubt hopes to tempt an incoming Labour government into renegotiating the entire deal, and with the Starmer administration desperate to find some way of kickstarting growth, it may well agree.

We can expect to see a flurry of ambitious proposals in the months ahead as an election looms, and even more if Labour wins, as it almost inevitably will.

The EU needs access to lucrative UK markets, especially in sectors such as autos and agriculture. The UK’s huge budget contributions and the profits from our markets are missed and it will try to win them back.

Second, however, the UK needs to learn how to stand up for its own interests. Sure, it would be great for young people to have the freedom to work and study in an EU country. We all benefit from remaining open to new ideas and experiences.

And yet there are big problems with the proposal the EU has made. To start with, like so many offers from the bureaucrats in Brussels, it is completely one-sided. Anyone aged 18 to 30 from the EU can come here, but at least under the draft proposals published so far, the British can only go to one EU country.

More importantly, however, the UK’s open labour market makes it easy for people to move here but very few go in the other direction.

If we rewind to the heyday of free movement, the traffic was overwhelmingly one-way. The government estimated that three million people had moved to Britain from 2000 onwards, but since no one counted the figures properly it was hard to know precisely.

As it turned out, officials had got the estimates completely wrong. Under the “settled status” rules that allowed people from the EU to stay in Britain if they were already here, there were over seven million applications, or more than double the number expected, and given that some people decided not to stay, the real total could have been eight or even nine million.

And how many went from the UK to Europe? The UN estimates that there were about 900,000 UK citizens living in the rest of the EU in 2019, many of them retirees on the coasts of Spain or Portugal.

Young Poles, Hungarians and Italians flocked to Britain, assuming that they could make better money here than they could at home, or else to escape suffocating regulations that locked them out of the labour markets.

Likewise, under the Erasmus programme for students, statistics from 2018 show that 32,000 EU nationals were funded to come to the UK, while an estimated 17,000 British students went to study in the rest of the Continent.

Add it all up, and one point is clear. Young British people hardly ever went to work elsewhere in the EU for anything more than a summer job in the sunshine; neither did they study there.

They don’t speak the language, and there aren’t any jobs anyway. In effect, the EU dumped its youth unemployment on us, in the same way the Chinese dump cheap phones and cars.

It made sense for them, but it was a rotten deal for the UK. And now they want to do it all over again.

The broader point is that the UK needs to curb its addiction to imported labour. We have made a terrible job of it so far, but at least we have the right in principle to control our own borders. The last thing we need is another wave of immigrants from across the EU.

It would be great to be on better terms with Brussels, and there are parts of the Brexit agreement that could be improved. But the EU has just demonstrated that it needs us more than we need it, and it is willing to negotiate. The UK does not need a return to any form of free movement.