‘Confined to this little island’: Britons criticise rejection of EU youth mobility deal (2024)

Elena, 35, was “flabbergasted” when she heard that both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer had dismissed a proposal by the European Commission to improve mobility for young people between the EU and the UK.

Last Friday, the prime minister rejected the post-Brexit youth mobility deal, which would have allowed Britons aged between 18 and 30 to live, study or work in one EU country for up to four years, and for young EU citizens to come to the UK on the same terms, after Labour declined the offer the previous day.

“This scheme seems like a no-brainer – I cannot think why anyone would disagree with it,” said Elena, who works in the healthcare sector in north-east England. She dismissed concerns that people could end up trying to overstay and settle in the UK permanently.

“I have friends who have taken advantage of such schemes with Canada, Australia and New Zealand and none of them ended up moving permanently to those countries. I suspect the resistance from the Tories and Labour is based on a belief that a sizeable chunk of the British public would balk at the idea of eastern Europeans freely crossing our borders again.

“I think both parties are misreading the public – I really don’t think there is a big appetite for being anti-European.”

Many hundreds of people who shared their views on the proposal with the Guardian appeared to agree with Elena, who says her employer is struggling to recruit people with fluency in a European language since Brexit.

Scores of people working in a variety of sectors including hospitality, health and social care, teaching, scientific research, technology, IT, defence, aviation, construction and the arts said their business or sector would benefit enormously from young Britons and Europeans having a greater degree of mobility.

Jo Wright, 58, an architect who lives between Bath and London, said she was “furious that both Sunak and Starmer have rejected the EU offer”.

“I run a large architecture practice and many of our team are EU citizens who thankfully stayed here after Brexit. There is a huge shortage of skills in the market and this is already impacting on London’s status as a global centre of creative excellence.

“Reinstating freedom of movement would allow young people to embrace the opportunity to broaden their horizons and bring back some of the talent we have lost in the post-Brexit exodus.”

Roger Hardacre, from Preston, in Lancashire, who retired a few years ago from managing a hi-tech company in Manchester with 15 staff, also said the UK economy would benefit from easier access to Europe’s next generation of talent.

‘Confined to this little island’: Britons criticise rejection of EU youth mobility deal (1)

“This proposal is an excellent idea,” the 65-year-old said.

“I’m retired now, but in my last job we recruited a scientist from Italy who had just got his PhD, and he was one of our key people in putting together our products – lasers.

“We interviewed him over Zoom. We said: ‘We want you, when can you start?’, and he came over within weeks. There were no fees, it was so easy and cheap to recruit from the single market. Now, you’ll have to pay a fortune to get someone from, say, Finland.

“Brexit has closed our access to a range of talents from Europe who are just looking for short-term contracts.”

Only a handful of young EU citizens who got in touch, from countries including Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Spain, Belgium, Greece and France – either students or workers in sectors such as hospitality, publishing, construction, technology and logistics – said they would like to come to the UK for work.

Various young graduates from the UK said they would immediately move to a European country for work or training opportunities if such a policy was adopted.

Daniel, a 21-year-old technology graduate from London working for a bank, said low pay, high taxes and an extortionate cost of living in the capital made the UK an unattractive place to spend his early career years, while northern Europe beckoned with its innovative tech scene and better public services.

“I’ve been working for just about a year, and although I’m on £40k, living in London feels hand-to-mouth. I reckon that perhaps you get a better deal in parts of the EU – a lower cost of living, a more relaxed culture, a health system that works.

“I speak German, and northern Europe is an incubator for tech startups, so I’m very interested in moving to Germany, the Netherlands or perhaps Denmark.”

Improved mobility did not just appeal to graduates and their employers: scores of people, many of them parents of sons and daughters in their teens or 20s, said such a scheme could restart the funnelling of young baristas, waiters and au pairs into countries on either side of the Channel.

More remote areas of countries such as Germany, France, Spain and the UK, they said, had relied on young foreign arrivals to fill such vacancies in the past.

“We benefited tremendously from having au pairs when we were raising our kids,” said Leslie Gardner from London, who is in her 70s and works in publishing.

‘Confined to this little island’: Britons criticise rejection of EU youth mobility deal (2)

Improved mobility for young people would be “enormously beneficial” for parents struggling to secure childcare, she said, adding that getting an au pair from Europe was “almost impossible now”.

“When my two sons were kids, we were able to bring over terrific young women to help out, about 10 in total, from all over – Italy, Slovenia and Germany. They stayed with us, learned English, travelled with us, and for my two little boys it was the experience of another culture,” Gardner said.

“It would be very hard and expensive for an au pair to come over now, it’s blocked [by the end of freedom of movement].”

However, for some, such as Thomas, a waste engineer in his 20s from south-east England, there are concerns that an improvement in mobility for the young could be abused and lead to higher net immigration.

“We already have a housing crisis, we’re not building enough homes and people can’t find somewhere to stay. If such a scheme is not managed properly it could upset those who are worried about immigration,” he said.

Thomas voted to leave the EU, but looking back he feels the referendum was mis-sold to people: “It caused a lot of division and people were feeling tense about the high level of immigration into the UK.

“I think [the scheme] is good in general but I’m worried about it being done blindly, in the way that the [EU] referendum vote forced people to either see the EU as beautiful and perfect, or terrible and irredeemable.”

Thomas said he thought greater mobilitycould help the economy, but he voiced concern that people would not feel its effects in their day-to-day lives. “I’d like a proper assessment and breakdown of the scheme. If it will help raise wages, how?”

He said the proposal would make him at least consider moving to Europe due to the stagnation of opportunities in the UK. “Maybe it would be good to go abroad and try something new. A lot of professionals stuck here are starting to think maybe we’re not so great.”

‘Confined to this little island’: Britons criticise rejection of EU youth mobility deal (3)

Despite finding it “absolutely inexplicable” that Sunak rejected the proposal, it was Labour’s position on the deal that had really upset people, said Linda Goldsmith, a retired social worker, while one older person from Brighton said Labour had lost his vote over the issue.

Goldsmith, who is 85 and lives in London, said: “I can’t believe the government said no to it, but I feel even more betrayed by Labour on this.

“I’ve voted Labour all my life and I keep having to persuade myself that Starmer is playing the long game and trying to form the next government before he can take a position on it.

“Dynamic young European people are lucky as they have the whole of Europe to roam around. We’re confined to this little island.”

‘Confined to this little island’: Britons criticise rejection of EU youth mobility deal (2024)
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