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In her speech on Brexit this week, Theresa May said that Britain would not remain a member of the single market so that the UK can control immigration from the EU. But Britain and the EU will still need to reach agreement on the rights of existing EU migrants and those moving after Brexit, as part of a future free trade agreement. In negotiating the latter, the EU is likely to insist on at least preferential access of EU workers to the British labour market, if not more.

In the CER’s latest policy brief ‘What free movement means to Europe and why it matters for Britain’, Camino Mortera-Martinez and Christian Odendahl highlight that the UK and the EU-27 have differing views of migration. These differing views will complicate Brexit talks. See

  • The free movement of workers is a founding principle of the EU. The European Court of Justice has, in the past, been very generous in expanding free movement rights but has now changed course.
  • For the EU-27, the indivisibility of the single market is not political posturing aimed at exacting revenge on the UK during Brexit negotiations. Simple trade theory does suggest that the single market could work without free movement. But a more nuanced analysis shows that free movement of persons helps the single market to be more integrated, fairer and more efficient.
  • Europeans are worried about migration from outside Europe. Meanwhile, support for free movement is high in the EU-27. The EU-27 will not engage in a major reform of free movement rules before Brexit is off their plate.
  • If it wants to contain populism, the EU should take a hint from the Brexit vote and agree to some modest reforms of free movement rules. These include changes to how non-contributory benefits are paid, and to how non-EU spouses can relocate within the EU.
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