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EU-UK youth mobility left on ice: implications for the future?

Frank Pringle / May 2024

Image: Shutterstock

 

When I pitched the idea for this article, we were all still in the throes of general election “will they, won’t they?”. Now that we know that there will indeed be a general election on 4 July, there is no better time to bring up a recently released and (mostly) forgotten psychodrama in the post-Brexit UK-EU relationship.

With the European Commission’s announcement of its intentions to open negotiations with the UK to establish a comprehensive youth mobility scheme, including the granting of freedom of movement for up to four years for Brits aged between 18-30, many young people like me were, quite frankly, excitedly astonished at the prospect.

This proposal would have allowed both EU and UK citizens entailed other provisions such as the re-introduction of tuition fee equivalency, the right to work in an EU member state for up to 4 years, and allowed for negotiations between the EU and UK on how this scheme would be governed.

However, working at lightning speed, both the Conservative and Labour leaderships threw cold water on the Commission’s proposal. The reaction was, largely, dejected sighs of “of course they did.”

The Conservatives, terrified of the prospect of (1) engaging with the Europeans and (2) signing up to a free movement deal with said Europeans had little-to-no incentive to meet the Commission’s proposal with anything more than a “No, thanks”. The Conservatives, nevertheless, believe their strategy of securing member-state level youth mobility agreements will bring them success - perhaps they were annoyed the member states had told the Commission about their proposals.

The real kicker for young Brits was the similarly fast rejection by the Labour Party, the natural home for young people in the UK and with whom a large contingent of pro-Europeans reside. Labour sources also replied with a simple “No,” whilst repeating their mantra that under Labour, the UK won’t be returning to either the Single Market or Customs Union.

Meanwhile, the wheels of the institutions in Brussels kept turning, with the Commission’s proposal now sitting with the Council of the European Union, who will scrutinise and (if they so approve of the Commission’s idea) vote to hand negotiating powers to the Commission to hash out a youth mobility scheme with the UK.

Turning to the election, these two processes may coincide and (assuming the polls are not spectacularly wrong) the Commission would be dealing with a Labour government when seeking to set up such a mobility scheme.

Assuming current shadow Foreign, Home, and Education secretaries, David Lammy, Yvette Cooper, and Bridget Phillipson respectively, become secretaries of state after the election, the Commission would be coordinating with three largely pro-European ministries. Furthermore, the Labour movement is significantly more prone to lobbying and the influences of young voters and constituents than the Conservatives - helped by Labour’s higher likelihood of holding and gaining seats in university towns across the UK.

Essentially, as it stands from a British perspective, the EU-UK youth mobility scheme is on ice, pending the outcome of the general election in July.

As pointed out by those engrossed within diplomatic circles, another important event will also occur in July, the 4th summit of the European Political Community, which will be held in the UK. And should a Labour government ascend to power, this will be Keir Starmer’s first opportunity to set the agenda for European leaders to discuss, which could include provision for youth mobility arrangements across the continent. That scenario, however, does contatin a number of hypotheticals.

Like most things in international relations (and if the EU-UK relationship has taught us anything in the last, say, 8 years)  “wait and see” is a viable strategy for observers. Nevertheless, if Labour wants to keep their young supporters on side in government, a closer relationship with the EU – supplemented by enthusiastic UK engagement and involvement in youth mobility and other programme -  would go a long way.

We will wait and see.

Frank Pringle

Frank Pringle

May 2024

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