What Free Movement actually means

I was 24 and had just spent a night at a friends’ house for a small LAN party in late spring 2006 when my mother found out that I had dropped out of my second attempt at university a few weeks earlier. The uncertainty about my future terrified me so much that I hadn’t told anyone I had dropped out — not my parents, not my closest friends, not my siblings. I had left the letter on my desk, and my mother found it when she went into my room to tidy up some drinks glasses.

She immediately called my mobile phone, understandably angry, and demanded I come home and explain myself. Angry as I was that she had read post that was clearly my private matter, I told my friends what had happened, packed up my things and went home to come clean. It wasn’t pretty and there was a fair bit of shouting from both my mother and myself.

Here’s the thing with dropping out of university in Germany in 2006: higher education was (mostly, some minor admin fees aside) free, so university participation was enormous. My first computer sciences course started with nearly 300 students in the same lecture hall. The electrical engineering course I signed up after realising that university-level compsci was a bit too in-depth for my vaguely defined life goals wasn’t much smaller.

University participation being as enormous as it was (and probably still is) means that German employers are very keen on formal qualifications — of which I had none other than barely-passed secondary school exit tests roughly equivalent to the UK’s A-levels. For three months I sent out paper applications for every vaguely appropriate job I could find that wasn’t going to take me away from my dear friends — paper applications that, in Germany, come in a nice plastic portfolio folder, with an original passport photo, notarised copies of whatever qualifications you may have. They’re not cheap, those things, but the general etiquette is that employers look at them and then send them back with the reply.

Out of god knows how many applications I sent out, I got one response — a rejection. Which didn’t include the application materials.

Eventually my motivation to send out applications dropped, the letters sent came to a trickle, and finally I gave up and spent a few days despairing. Having resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to find reasonable work in my home area, I decided if I’m going to have to move away I might as well do it properly and see if I can find a job in games, which at the time was my big goal, like so many other men fresh out of secondary education or university.

After months of unsuccessful, soul-crushing attempts at finding a job, any job, in my home area, I had an offer for a trial day with a games company in Cambridge within a week. They were looking for German-language community managers and translators, and two days after the trial day I was offered a job, with the question of “could you start next week?”.

I had been offered a job in another country. They wanted me to start in a week. I took the offer, though postponing my start date by a couple of weeks so I could have my 25th birthday at home and celebrate it with my friends. My start date was a week after the day I’d set for the birthday — and now going-away — party.

As an EU citizen moving to work in another country that is also an EU member, my process for starting my new job in another country was as follows:

  1. Browse the internet for a temporary place to stay, e-mail the poster of an ad that looked good, and tell them I’d be arriving the morning of the upcoming Friday.
  2. Book a ferry ticket for me and my car from Calais to Dover.
  3. Pack some clothes, some canned food, my computer and my XBox with its pile of emulators and things into the back of my car.
  4. Drive to Calais on Thursday afternoon, ferry over, stay in a B&B in Dover overnight and drive to Cambridge on Friday morning.
  5. Settle in over the weekend, buying plug adapters and the like.
  6. Start work on Monday.

That’s it. No immigration paperwork, no visa, nothing. My ID was valid in the UK so I had little trouble opening a local bank account for my pay to go into. The only thing I had to do was have a five-minute interview and fill in a form at the job centre to get my social security number.

Had I been a student moving to another EU country to study, this process would have been the same.

Had I been chronically ill and decided to move somewhere with a climate more suited to my health, this process would have been the same.

Had I been just ahead of retirement and wanted to be somewhere nice and sunny for that, this process would have been the same.

Had I been just fed up with where I lived (which I was) but without a job offer or even any interviews lined up where I’d decided to go, this process would have been the same.

This is what free movement in the EU means.

It means anyone with an EU passport can up sticks and move to another EU country to work, or study, or just to live, with little to no paperwork or process required.

It means anyone with an EU passport can move back to their country of origin — or another EU country — at any point, with little to no paperwork or process required.

It means EU citizens will get free healthcare in any other EU country without a problem.

It means that if someone moves to another country and they were working before, the time they’ve spent working will be accepted by their new home country’s social security system as though they’d been there all along (though this does involve a little bit of paperwork).

There are plenty of valid concerns with the EU from a leftist point of view, from the shitty way TTIP is being handled (though UK Remain supporters point out that in the case of an EU exit, the UK would jump at the chance of signing that godawful mess) to the absolutely horrid manner the EU, at the behest largely of German investment banks, have treated Greece.

There are valid concerns with how free movement combined with poor labour market regulation can result in undercut wages — but the response to those concerns is not to flush opportunities like these — which the EU offers for anyone, young or old, educated or not, healthy or not, wealthy or not — down the toilet on the internal power struggle of a party in thrall to its own extremist right wing, which is all this ridiculous referendum ever was.

Free movement, as a concept, is fucking brilliant.

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