This weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the beautiful city of Prague with friends ahead of my 23rd birthday (tomorrow). This was my first time in the Czech Republic and I was pleased to find myself in an hospitable country with enjoyable nightlife and friendly locals. If you get a chance to go then I must recommend in particular St. Vitus Cathedral, which sits next to Prague's castle and overlooks most of the city. It is architecture of astonishing beauty. The river Vltava, winding and picturesque, is also well worth any tourists's time.
As ever with these continental getaways I was afforded a useful opportunity to ponder the free movement issue and reflect on what Brexit consequences could mean for me. Travel is sobering in that respect and reminds me not take anything I currently have for granted. It certainly helps to drive home the reciprocity aspect to free movement, which, if I may contend, was not driven home hard enough during the referendum campaign.
One of my failures over the past couple of years has been to subconsciously pander to hardliner rhetoric on free movement. I have not been guilty of this when discussing the other three fundamental freedoms so I perhaps have some reason to be disappointed with myself. If one looks at how the issue has been discussed, one notices a lot of talk of 'putting up with' free movement or 'conceding' it through softer Brexit options. The perspective taken on it has been one of a glass half empty rather than glass half full, and this I feel I have not sufficiently countered or challenged.
The central premise to being a soft Leaver is to recognise that not only do European 'systems' make a harder Brexit less plausible, they can also be worth protecting when they are not the exclusive property of EU membership. In other words, taking away what aids us may not in the end be such a bad thing. What separates us from the hardliners is a recognition that free movement is largely a good thing and if I could go back and re-make any case for a soft exit then standing up for free movement a little more defiantly would have been somewhat preferable.
My mentality for the last couple of years was that if I got to grips with some of the complexities behind modern trade I might be better equipped at making the arguments. I have been effective to a small extent but in focusing primarily on trade (and thus the free movement of capital, services and goods) I forgot to make the case for safeguarding the free movement of people. I regret this and in hindsight feel I should have done a better job of not pandering to the lopsidedness of discourse by virtue of my inaction.
As I have argued here repeatedly, language matters. Especially in politics. Any political issue can be framed in multiple ways if we care enough to examine consequences beyond what is immediately obvious. Free movement may be free movement for EU citizens but the reciprocal elements make it an opportunity just as much as a constraint on domestic policy construction. Free movement in the eyes of a British traveller or worker undoubtedly expands horizons. And my fear now is that it is likely too late to fully appreciate things like this.
Of course, it is often argued that free movement is a meaningless right only really reaped by the minority of people in a position to benefit. This may well be true. People have family and professional commitments, as well as health issues which prevent any long-term uprooting. But what is missed here, I feel, is that the four freedoms which lay the groundwork of the single market are principles just as much as they are rights. People are, among other things, economic units, and so their ability to move in tandem with other economic units is of paramount importance.
Beyond this, another interesting point about free movement is its bifurcation with EU membership. This we know came about back in 1994, when it became possible to detach the four freedoms from membership of the EU. Curiously, direction of travel has been one way and countries outside the sphere of the EU have only moved towards it. Finland, much like the UK, abandoned Efta for the EU. No country has hopped in the reverse direction. This I feel may have something to do with a feeling of strength in numbers or perhaps a perception of becoming a vassal-like, rule taker.
But the point I make shouldn't be discarded. With the ratification of the EEA Agreement, clearer lines were drawn between the single market and the EU, or perhaps (to put it another way) the baby and the bathwater. The EEA is not perfect and has its institutional downsides, but what it manages in some part to do, intellectually speaking, is undermine some of the case for EU membership. It took the best of what the EU had to offer and render it up for grabs for countries less happy with the political baggage which comes with membership.
Most pro-EU figures I know who are invested in the Brexit debate, be it trade wonks, academics or journalists, typically argue that the four freedoms are at the forefront of the case for EU membership. They often claim that the best thing about membership of the EU is free movement itself and they are not wrong. I think this is why so many of them have always given me the time of day and appreciated some of the thinking behind what I have written and argued. EU and Efta/EEA are not by any means identical, but they do share important beneficial commonalities which we can work with as a basis for discussion.
But the political elite decided not to score what I would consider to be an open goal and opt for a Brexit which protects something worthwhile. Instead they interpreted the Leave vote as something which revolved entirely around immigration, which it didn't, and flipped the question of EU membership into a question of free movement. And what we are looking at now is a deal which places a higher premium on ending said free movement than on anything else.
So my current thinking is left at something of a crossroads. Textually impressive and considerate of the Irish border though it may be, the withdrawal agreement ends free movement and threatens the stability of supply chains. I have stated that I can reluctantly support it only on the premise that I think this is all we will get. It is this, no deal or no Brexit. I know I won't be satisfied with any option, and maybe I don't deserve to be.