Making social science accessible

09 Apr 2021


UK-EU Relations

With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union the free movement of persons between the two has also ended. UK citizens have lost their right to live and work anywhere in the European Union, and vice versa.

This major policy change follows the common interpretation of the Brexit vote: people voted Leave to curb EU immigration and to ‘take back control of our borders’.

It is not surprising that free movement played such a crucial role in the Brexit debate, as the image of a borderless continent is what most often comes to mind when people think about the EU.

Incidentally, this crucial pillar of the European integration process is also what European citizens mention most often as a major achievement of the EU (together with securing peace).

At the same time, in many European democracies voices critical of EU immigration and open borders across the continent have become louder over recent years, and have strengthened Euroscepticism in immigrant-receiving countries. As a consequence, citizens have become more divided about the level of European integration.

Free movement is a case in point of the integration-demarcation conflict – between those that welcome international openness as a valuable opportunity, and those that seek the protection of national borders and identities.

The right to free movement is both loved and feared by European citizens, thereby having simultaneously the potential of bolstering and undermining the legitimacy of the EU.

Studying public opinion on the matter reveals a striking paradox: while a stable share of about 80% of European citizens support the free movement of people, we observe a broad political backlash seeking the re-bordering of the continent.

The British case is particularly illustrative of this phenomenon. When the British people were asked about their opinion on the free movement rights of EU citizens in a representative survey in May 2016 (just before the referendum), 63% of respondents were in favour and only 30% were against.

And although this was the lowest share of all EU member states, it does still represent a remarkable two-thirds majority that expressed support of the principle of a borderless Europe that grants its citizens the right to live and work anywhere across the Union. Why did the British nevertheless vote for Brexit and for ending free movement just a few weeks later?

A deeper look at public opinion shows that citizens are often ambivalent when it comes to free movement in the EU. In a recent study, I demonstrated that this is because free movement grants reciprocal rights, enabling both inward mobility of citizens from other EU countries and outward mobility of fellow British citizens.

These two are inseparable as dimensions of a fundamental freedom of the European Single Market: the whole point of this as a freedom is that it enables people to move around the bloc to live, work and study in any member state.

However, importantly, my research has found that the two dimensions are however perceived very differently. Many cherish their own freedom to move across Europe, but fear that others will make use of the same freedom.

The support for free movement therefore depends strongly on whether it is associated with one’s own valuable mobility rights, or with undesired immigration from other countries.

As long as immigration is not seen as a problem, citizens have high levels of support for the principle of free movement. They value their freedom to study in Germany, to work in Belgium and to retire in Spain.

This changes however if the perspective moves from the outward perspective to the inward perspective of European mobility.

If free movement becomes linked with undesired immigration, people are torn between their mobility rights and those of others. Those most critical of EU immigration are those most ambivalent in their support for free movement.

Back to the UK, and to Brexit. This serves as an illustrative example that public opinion turns against free movement if it becomes associated with undesired immigration.

The Brexit debate was focused largely on the threat of undesired and uncontrolled immigration, but hardly about the other side of the coin – the reciprocal mobility rights of UK citizens. A clear majority wanted less immigration, but not to give up their own mobility rights.

This view is confirmed by the latest headlines in the British press expressing outrage about the treatment of British citizens as third-country nationals by EU member states.

The end of free movement appears to be a key purpose of Brexit. Public opinion, though, is more complex than commonly perceived.

The question of free movement did not only polarize different camps in the Brexit divide, it also created ambivalence among those seeking to curb immigration as this means to give up ones’ own mobility rights.

This shows that Brexit’s difficult trade-off choices between desired benefits and feared costs are well represented in the preferences of citizens.

By Dr Philipp Lutz, post-doctoral researcher in Political Science, University of Geneva


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