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The conventional wisdom is that the United Kingdom, as a post-imperial island nation (or rather nation of islands), will never join the European Union’s borderless travel zone. But, if the current debate in the UK – stemming from the ending of employment restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, and the proposed referendum on EU membership – leads to a flushing out of the toxicity currently infecting many people’s views of the European project and to a renewed support for a political European union with free movement at its core (something which is not guaranteed), British membership of the Schengen area could arrive earlier than expected.

The constant outsider

Ask any seasoned political observer when the UK might fully sign up to the Schengen acquis (the country already participates in some Schengen measures related to cross-border police and judicial cooperation) and be prepared for a fairly concise answer: “never”.

Notwithstanding this year’s referendum on Scottish independence and the consequent uncertainty about the existence of the United Kingdom itself, no one expects David Cameron – or, indeed, any British prime minister – to be rushing to Brussels to give up the UK’s opt-out from membership of the Schengen area, and thereby the country’s absolute right to control its own borders.

The benefits of free movement of people 

Yet something interesting is happening in the UK right now. The prime minister’s promise of holding an ‘in-out’ referendum if his party wins the next UK parliamentary election, and the recent (treaty-mandated) lifting of restrictions on the employment of Bulgarians and Romanians, has sown the seeds for a debate about the European Union, as well the UK’s place within it which, that for a generation or more, the entire British political establishment has been afraid to seriously engage in.

It may be a while before the debate gets into details like Schengen, but already there is much talk about concepts such as a single market needing a single set of rules – justifying European-level legislation. Senior Conservative members of the UK government, such as David Cameron and William Hague, seem to be softening and indeed rowing back from some of their previous hardline Eurosceptic positions, after realising just how fundamental single market membership is to the UK economy (and how a membership à la carte would neither work nor make sense).

If the basic principles of the European single market, once set out and explained to people (in a way which they never have been before), are generally accepted, the logical conclusion is a support for free movement of people around that single market. There are not many single markets in the world (certainly not in the group of countries and territories that we consider to be free democracies) where people cannot move as they wish around the territory of that single market.

Markets are not abstract entities involving automated businesses selling directly to consumers – businesses need employees; indeed, they need healthy, resourceful, well-educated employees. And that means that they, and the societies in which they exist, need access to a diversified, and ideally rather large, labour market – brimming with the best, the brightest, those with particular skills, the most willing and engaged. It is a strangely lopsided single market where a business in the UK, say, can sell a good or service to over 500 million but only freely pick its employees from a pool of 63 million.

Indeed, it is not only private enterprise that can benefit from a large and diverse labour market. The public sector also needs skilled people and, like private companies, can benefit from the diversity of mindset and background that migrants from other countries bring to the table.

A single market with borders? The importance of a well-informed public opinion

In any case, a European single market without free movement of people is not only a strange and lopsided concept; it is also not on offer. Neither is access to that single market by outsiders who do not sign up to the so-called ‘four freedoms’, which include free movement of people. The oft-cited examples of Norway and Switzerland demonstrate very clearly that access to the European market on equal terms with EU members requires acceptance of the single market’s fundamental tenets, including the core principle of free movement of people. The next few months will prove to be particularly interesting, following the recent Swiss referendum vote in favour of the re-introduction of migrant quotas, with the likely effect that Switzerland will soon be forced to breach the complex web of bilateral accords that the country has with the European Union. (The EU has already suspended negotiations on Swiss access to the EU electricity market, as well as education and research programmes, in the wake of the referendum result.)

Border controls within the single market of the UK would be bizarre and few would tolerate them. It is not such a leap then to posit that, when a majority of British people fully understand and buy into their rights as European citizens to move around the European Union as they please (as some already do), they could be convinced that it is logical that the absolute free movement which exists within the UK should also exist at the European level and that there should be a tightly controlled European external border – policed perhaps by a European border force, which may be perceived as being more rigorous than some existing Schengen states’ own border police forces – with complete free movement inside. 

One obvious advantage of this free movement – particularly for those traveling often - would be avoiding the need to go through three (potentially soon four) separate border inspections on every short-haul intra-European trip. Train travelers going through the Channel Tunnel would particularly benefit from such a change – both immediately in terms of time and inconvenience spared, and in the future through the likely additional competition that would ensue without the need for train operators such as Deutsche Bahn, NS Hispeed and Thalys to comply with strict UK Border Force rules.

Those non-western third-country nationals working in international companies in the UK would also no longer face the inequity of having to apply for a Schengen visa simply to make a business trip to one of their firm’s offices in the Schengen area (and vice versa for such colleagues normally resident inside Schengen), while their European colleagues travel between offices at short-notice and with impunity – a difference which doesn’t make sense in the context of a single European labour market. 

The Brits are a fairly pragmatic, rational lot. While a minority may hanker for imperial days gone by, or place absolute national sovereignty on a pedestal above all else (which Schengen membership certainly dilutes), the majority are able to weigh up the pros and cons of an idea and come to a decision based on rational, rather than deeply ideological or emotional, grounds. Nevertheless, making such a rational decision requires people to be well-informed. If they become better informed about the concept of European free movement over the coming months and years – as they are rather likely to, given the intensity of the current debate – and reach a collective decision in favour of it, it is not such a big leap from that to an acceptance that the United Kingdom should be inside the Schengen area.

Edited by: Margarida Hourmat

Photo credits: irek.dx via Flickr