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Not quite free movement offered to UK for students and young workers

The Commission has presented its proposal to the European Council as a potential ‘agreement to facilitate youth mobility’, carefully avoiding the expression ‘freedom of movement’. The motivation is explained as a wish to address the fact that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU has adversely affected the opportunities for young people to experience life on the other side of the English Channel and to benefit from youth, cultural, educational, research and training exchanges.

The Commission sees it as a way of improving people-to-people relations damaged by Brexit without restoring freedom of movement, which it sees as a privilege that the UK was bound to lose when it left the EU (or more precisely the European Economic Area). What it doesn’t want is another attempt by the UK at ‘cherry-picking’, by agreeing bilateral deals on youth mobility with favoured member states, along the lines of agreements it has already reached with 10 non-EU countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan.

It seems certain that the timing means that the Commission sees an opportunity in the strong likelihood that the UK’s Conservative government will lose an election later this year. By the time the negotiating mandate is agreed, the British Labour Party could well be in power.

Labour shown interest in the UK rejoining Erasmus+, the scheme that funds education and training opportunities for young people moving between European countries. The Commission is suggesting that an EU-UK agreement on youth mobility “could be usefully supported by a parallel discussion on the possible association of the UK to Erasmus+”.


Labour’s reaction has not been positive, regarding at least the timing as unhelpful. It plans to go into the election promising greater cooperation and better relations with the EU but with three ‘red lines’. They rule out returning to the single market, customs union or free movement of people. Although polling suggests that potential Labour voters who backed Brexit and don’t regret it are a shrinking part of the electorate, the party is determined not to alarm them.

Most of the British press is normally pro-Conservative and pro-Brexit. The reliably Tory Daily Telegraph has duly reported the Commission’s proposal as the EU ‘tempting’ Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer. A party spokesperson reiterated that it would seek to improve UK-EU relations “within our red lines” and pointed to its ideas for reducing veterinary checks at ports and for easing the restrictions on touring by musicians and other artists.

But the spokesperson also stated that “Labour has no plans for a youth mobility scheme”. Of course, the lack of such a proposal in its election manifesto does not rule out being open to the idea once in government. It might be an attractive way of making a difference at little financial cost.

The political price could by then be small as well. Most of the age group who would benefit were too young to vote in the 2016 referendum and many of them are furious at being denied the right to live, study and work in the EU.



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