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Most precious right to move freely in Europe

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:

The European Union embodies many principles of an open society. The EU’s overarching aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples. These values include equality, respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Member states have recognized that they are interdependent and use the EU to cooperate to achieve a greater, collective good. Freedom of movement is an important part of this cooperation, encouraging tolerance and understanding among people of different cultures. This can help to break down harmful stereotypes and prejudices. It can also help to build solidarity between people and governments of different countries. This will make EU countries more likely to pull together to solve shared problems, such as the Euro crisis. In Britain, we still think we can trade the rights of other people, like so many sheep and cattle. A procession of prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron and now Theresa May went to Brussels, our modern-day Runnymede. Bragging and threatening, casting themselves as medieval barons with a grievance, they tried to bully the King, aka the EU, to give them more: bigger snacks now, less taxes, less pain. The British don’t do constitutions. We have elected governments that can ride roughshod over anyone’s rights, if we can muster sufficient bodies to walk through a lobby.

There is no higher law than a government in power, a bit like a King. Not even a referendum has power; in law it is advisory, until a prime minister with power chooses to make it so.

At the end of March, for British children, that right is extinguished. It’s not just scrapped for future generations; it is ripped out of the hands of your offspring; torn up in front of their eyes. Never in the remembered history of this country has any government wilfully torn up a right so precious that belongs to the nation’s children and unborn children. It has been allowed to happen without more than a moment’s thought. Our politicians blather on about tariffs, market access, barriers to trade. No one considers the most important economic, political and human right of all. The right to wander freely, to settle, to work, to set up a business, to marry, raise a family and to establish yourself in another place. Forget the shouting, the blaming, the who did what and when. In a divorce, the first and last thing is, what’s best for the kids. It is the golden rule; they are blameless, after all, and even as we lie and hide money and plot hideous revenge on our spouse, we worry: Oh god, what if I lose them? It is unfathomable. In all the hullabaloo over leaving the EU, no one has given serious consideration to the only question that will really matter over time: what happens to the kids?

They have rights, the kids. Tangible rights to something that is valuable today and for every child in Britain should be a birthright until the day they die to be a citizen of Europe, to be able to move across the Continent freely and to live and work anywhere that he or she pleases, from Galway to Gdansk and from Stockholm to Seville. In Britain, we understand little of what rights mean in the modern world. Slavery was abolished long ago; we know we can speak freely and every adult has a vote.

When we talk of rights, we talk of aspiration: a right to a home, a right to a job, a right to free healthcare, a right to equal pay. These are not really rights; if they exist at all, they are duties. If I have a right to free healthcare, it is because everyone has agreed to take on the duty to provide it to me (and everyone else) by paying taxes. It’s not a right at all. It is a communal provision that may wax and wane, depending on communal wealth and the whim of governments to fund healthcare. In Britain, we think we invented rights something called Magna Carta, a document signed at Runnymede by King John and a group of barons in 1215. School children are told it was the first charter of rights but it was nothing of the sort. The barons wanted protection from being robbed and imprisoned by the King and they didn’t want to pay taxes; it’s a shopping list of demands. The King was weak and the barons forced him to sign. Magna Carta is not about rights; it is about thugs doing a deal with the Godfather.

The political mythology of Magna Carta explains why Britain struggles to understand the nature of the EU, its constitution and that precious right of free movement that so many would consign to the bin. When we joined the EU our children acquired fundamental rights, known as acquis, including the right to move freely in Europe. By leaving, we trash the treaties that we signed and these rights will probably extinguish. It is time to ask what Britons meant when they said take back control. Was it really give more control to Theresa May, or did we mean something else?

The King initially offered a few sweets, to appease Thatcher and Cameron but May is at the end of the road. This King cannot negotiate further; he has a constitution, a framework law, guaranteeing the rights of people in 28 nations and the constitution will not be trifled with. Originally, the EU gave free movement rights only to people who moved to another member state to seek work there or become self-employed. Once an individual is in employment and satisfies certain conditions, he or she has the same rights as nationals of that country to access benefits such as health care, education, and incapacity benefit. Workers and self-employed EU citizens may also bring their family members, who have access to the same benefits as nationals of the host country. Free movement rights have been extended to other categories of EU citizens who are not workers or self-employed.

However, these citizens have fewer rights because they are not contributing in the same way to the host country’s economy. Any EU citizen can move to and remain in another EU country for up to three months. EU citizens who are students may remain for the duration of their studies, but must show that they have sufficient financial support for their period of study. Other EU citizens who wish to stay longer than three months must have comprehensive sickness insurance and prove that they have financial resources to support themselves. Because finding a job from abroad is often difficult, EU citizens who are job seekers can move to another EU country and claim the same out-of-work benefit (but not other benefits) available to nationals of that country while they are looking for employment. This means that the point at which EU job-seekers can access this benefit will depend on each country’s rules for its own citizens. This varies between EU member states.In some countries job seekers can only claim out-of-work benefits if they have previously worked (e.g.,Austria and Belgium); in others a waiting period of several months is imposed (e.g., France and the Netherlands), and in some countries there is immediate entitlement to out-of-work benefits (e.g., the UK, Germany, and Ireland). However, a job seeker must prove that he or she is actively looking for a job and stands a real chance of being given employment.

Writer, Journalist and columnist