Remainers had a field day yesterday when the Brexit-supporting boss of JD Wetherspoon urged Boris Johnson to introduce a visa scheme for EU workers, since the post-pandemic labour market squeeze combined with a much stricter immigration regime with the EU has left British pubs and restaurants struggling to recruit staff. A festival of sneering ensued.
To be fair to Tim Martin, he has been consistent in calling for a liberal immigration policy with the EU after Brexit. The passionate Brexiteer suggested that the Government should introduce a visa system to alleviate some of the pressures on companies, insisting that countries geographically closer to the UK should be given preferential treatment.
His argument is logical and sound and the government would do well to heed his words. It makes complete sense to have a more liberal immigration regime with our neighbours with whom we do the majority of our trade and are geographically closer and thus a valuable source of labour to fill gaps in the market.
Freedom of movement was often misinterpreted as an unnecessary system irrelevant to trade. In fact, it was a sensible and logical response to market forces. In a market where goods move freely, and you can sell services anywhere freely, then the movement of people, investment, capital and providers of professional services must also be free.
Unfortunately for those who were pro-freedom of movement, even many Brexit voters like me, that argument was lost. Any argument that the 2016 referendum was not a definitive rejection of freedom of movement fell flat when the Conservative Party won two subsequent elections with manifestos that pledged to abolish freedom of movement.
Nonetheless, the government has made a deliberate choice to treat mobility with our closest neighbours in the same way as they do with countries with which we do very little trade and are too distant to be the source of labour that the economy needs. Tim Martin is dead right, this decision is unsustainable, economically and politically, and must be amended.
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The damage being done to the UK services industry, the loss of opportunities for our own citizens, the increased bureaucracy and difficulty in recruiting for UK business are all consequences of an illogical policy decision.
The Labour Party has become adept at completely missing open goals, but there is an opportunity here for the opposition to exploit. Although many hardliners would oppose a more liberal regime, British business, remainers and liberal and pragmatic Brexiteers could well support it. Especially when the pandemic is over and the severity of the consequences of the current regime become ever clearer.
There is little evidence of widescale public opposition to a more liberal mobility regime with the EU, the current government is misreading the public mood and fighting a culture war that it doesn’t need to fight. Allowing more freedom to move, work and study in the EU for our own citizens and reciprocating that to EU citizens is unlikely to hurt the government politically, but it will help our economic recovery.
Tim Martin said: “The UK has a low birth rate. A reasonably liberal immigration system controlled by those we have elected, as distinct from the EU system, would be a plus for the economy and the country.”
This is a sentiment likely shared across the country, Brexiteers and remainers alike.