Grassroots Hub

Brexit Briefings

Freedom of Movement


UK citizens deserve to benefit from free movement, just as their European counterparts do. Conversely, the UK economy needs free movement to fill vacancies, end shortages and keep prices down. The NHS needs free movement to recruit the right staff and to help cut waiting lists.

Post-Brexit, many people the UK needs either cannot come - for example, because the vacant jobs concerned do not pay over £25 700 a year - or do not want to come.

Without free movement, the UK is unattractive to highly-skilled people – like doctors and nurses - from Europe, who have the choice of over 30 other countries where free movement does apply. The UK is also unattractive to those – for example fruit pickers - looking for short-term work, who now face enormous bureaucracy in return for minimal rights. 

Free movement is not unconditional under EU law. People who are not employed or supported by family in the host country can be removed. People who have not contributed cannot get pensions or claim out-of-work benefits. It was a myth that someone could just ‘turn up at Dover and sign on the dole’. Free movement brings in much needed tax revenue that pays for public services.

Leavers said free movement was unfair, that millions came to the UK but few Brits worked in the EU and that post-Brexit, everyone who wants to come to the UK has the same opportunities.

But at least a million Brits were resident in the EU in 2016, most of them working. There were indeed many more EU citizens in the UK. But they have contributed hugely to the UK economy. Other member states also received  - and welcomed – big net inflows. For example, Germany’s net migration figures in 2021 increased to 329,000 people.  

And free movement is different to other migration. It is a reciprocal right within the same economic area – a right which millions of UK citizens took advantage of, now snatched away by Brexit.

Polling across the EU shows massive support for free movement and it is often selected as the EU’s most popular policy. In most EU countries, it is regarded as a different issue from immigration.

There is huge evidence that free movement did not in general mean lower pay for British people. And it is open to EU governments to adopt - or allow employers and workers to agree - sectoral pay and conditions deals that remove any such risk. Many countries, like the Nordics, do just that.

Brexit has cut wages in real terms. Brexit has contributed to soaring inflation and reduced purchasing power for the vast majority of people. For example, an LSE analysis says UK food prices have shot up by 6% as a direct result of Brexit.

The way to deal with pressures on public services in some regions due to large numbers of incoming workers is to do what other countries do – use the benefits of free movement to provide flexible funding to support public services where necessary.

Ending free movement has removed the rights of Brits – including performers – to work short-term abroad red-tape free. Visas are now usually necessary for working visits (except business meetings), even if someone is going to be working for their usual UK employer while in the EU.

Long-term work in the EU requires a work permit granted by the host country – there are no EU- eligibility rules.  UK professional qualifications are no longer automatically recognised in the EU.


Free movement is not just about living and/or working elsewhere in the EU.

Brexit is making even going on a short holiday more complicated.

Given that the UK has never been in the Schengen travel area, some checks were already necessary at ports and airports even before Brexit. But now those checks need to be more detailed and passports need to be stamped every time a British person enters or leaves the EU. Even if each person or car spends only 30 seconds or a minute more at a border post, this quickly leads to enormous queues, as we have seen this summer.

British citizens still have the right to enter the EU visa-free. But from 2023, all non-EU citizens, including Brits, who do not need full visas will need to apply and pay for a digital visa waiver, under a new EU scheme known as the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). The UK is planning to introduce a similar scheme for visiting EU citizens.

UK citizens – as we are no longer EU citizens - are limited to spending 90 days in any 180 period, calculated on a rolling basis, as a visitor in the EU. As a result, some British people who used to spend long periods at second homes in the EU, while retaining a British base, have had to sell up. 

Many British pensioners living in the EU – even if they have secured resident status under the Brexit citizens’ rights agreement between the UK and EU – have faced additional red tape challenges, notably over health care rights. They have also suffered a drop in the real value of their pensions owing to the weakening of sterling, as financial market confidence in the UK has fallen post-Brexit.

Red tape complications have also led to some British residents of some EU countries losing the right to drive their vehicles.

Before Brexit, British travellers in the EU and EEA could get EHIC cards allowing them access to state funded healthcare on an equal basis with residents of the host country. The government has introduced a replacement Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) scheme for UK travellers – but that may not benefit from the Europe-wide recognition EHIC cards brought.

Roaming charges for reasonable use of mobile telecoms and data anywhere in the EU and EEA were definitively abolished by EU law in 2017, having largely been scrapped under earlier regulation. Those rules no longer apply to the UK. Three of the four main UK mobile operators are now charging extra fees – often a flat £2 per day - when Brits use their phones in Europe.

Brexit has also made going on holiday with a family pet considerably more complicated. Pet owners now need to make arrangements with their vets to obtain documentation four months before travelling, with subsequent visits for vaccination and examination. This process now costs up to £300 and is valid only for one trip. EU pet passports – no longer accessible to Brits – are valid for the life of the animal, provided routine vaccinations and treatments are kept up to date.

The easy movement of students both from the EU to the UK and vice-versa was a significant benefit of EU membership. But this, too, no longer applies: British students must obtain visas for long-term study in the EU. Meanwhile, higher fees and red tape are also discouraging EU students from applying for courses in the UK – formerly a major source of revenue for the UK economy as well as of young talent, given that a significant proportion of such students stayed in the UK to work after graduating. That option is no longer open to many of them.