How our European freedoms threaten British jobs

After eleven years in the European parliament, I rarely come across an entirely new insight into the European process. But I was brought up sharp by a question posed by a sixth-former at Leicester Grammar School.

We were having a debate on February 11th, on the motion “This House believes that the benefits of EU membership outweigh the costs”. Speaking for the motion, Lib-Dem MEP Bill Newton Dunn laid great emphasis on the benefits of free movement within the EU. All these young people, he said, would be able to look for jobs and careers not only in the UK, but in 26 other member-states as well.

Of course apologists for the EU always like to point up the benefits of free movement. Young people can study in Strasbourg, Salzburg or Stockholm;Madrid or Milan or Munich. And equally they can work across the EU.

These things are certainly true. But British students also go to Canada and California, to Singapore and Sydney, and last time I checked the trend was for a higher proportion of students going to study overseas to look outside the EU. And on employment, I like to cite my own experience. I’ve worked in the USA, and in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Korea, and I never found any difficulty being outside the EU.We live in an increasingly globalised world, and we should not be limited to the EU. As the Norwegian NO Campaign slogan put it, “Europe is too small for us”.

Nevertheless, the right of free movement in the EU is generally presented as a plus. And another positive is the increasing hegemony of the English language, which has become the de facto lingua franca of Europe (and much of the world). When I first got to Brussels in 1999, the screens around the parliament building were in French, and spoke of “Séances” and “Réunions”. Then after the election of 2004, quietly and with no fanfare, the language changed to English, with Sittings and Meetings. It was a while before I noticed it.

In my eleven years in the parliament I have only once or twice been in a situation where I felt at all limited by language. English has become the second-language of choice for the great majority of continentals. After all if you’re born Danish or Finnish or Latvian, you would have serious difficulty travelling without English. The accession of the Eastern Europeans seems to have given a further boost to English.

So on the face of it, two positives. Two hits for British citizens. The right to free movement and job mobility, plus the dominance of our native tongue.

It took a highly perceptive question from the audience to highlight the snag. If most Europeans speak English, then they are well-placed to apply for a job in the UK — whether as a software engineer, as a doctor, or merely as a waiter. And as EU citizens they are free to do so. Meantime a Brit can only realistically apply for a job in France if he speaks French. And even leaving aside the legendary English reluctance to learn languages, it’s unlikely that our English applicant would be fluent in more than one or two languages. If he spoke both French and German, he’d still have access to less than half the EU, whereas at home in England he could face competition for jobs from right across the EU.

The UK could thus become, for linguistic reasons, a magnet for job applicants from across the EU, in a way which would apply to no other single EU memberstate. And English job applicants will therefore face much tougher competition in their home jobs market than would otherwise be the case.

The sixth-former set out this idea, and asked “Isn’t it so?”. Bill Newton Dunn hedged around the question defensively — I suspect that, like me, he’d never thought about it before. But I said “That’s a remarkably perceptive question, and the answer is “YES”. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Noes won the debate.