The Prime Minister’s ill-judged comments about European Union nationals in one of the biggest speeches of the year shows that she doesn’t understand the real challenges facing the country.
In her speech to the CBI conference, Theresa May underlined the fact that the planned EU withdrawal bill would end freedom of movement “once and for all”.
She added: “It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi. Instead of a system based on where a person is from, we will have one that is built around the talents and skills a person has to offer.”
These churlish and foolish words will come back to haunt her. Without the contribution from EU nationals, many of our vital services would struggle to function.
Instead of jumping the queue, engineers from the EU are fulfilling vital roles in companies across the UK because the local labour market is not fit for purpose. Companies are struggling to cope with a skills gap that is getting wider. So these skilled, dedicated, EU workers are helping to power the UK economy. They are also acting as mentors for British born workers. They are enriching the cultural and economic life of our nation.
Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s director general, said: “The Migration Advisory Committee confirmed that EU workers - at all skill levels - pay in more than they take out. They have not reduced jobs, wages or training for UK workers.”
Mrs May’s speech provoked a furious response from the Three Million, a grassroots organisation of EU citizens in the UK.
Nicolas Hatton, the co-founder of the Three Million, said: ”If UK decision makers are going to abolish freedom of movement, they should at least be honest about what it means. Freedom of movement is not queue jumping, but a mutual arrangement between EU countries.
“Scrapping it will mean British citizens cannot freely live, study or work in Europe either.
“The current immigration system of unrealistic migration targets and minimum salary thresholds for citizens of non-EU countries is not an EU invention, but was developed by Theresa May herself and later Home Secretaries in her Government.
“EU citizens in the UK will not tolerate a repeat of the toxic anti-immigrant language used in the 2016 referendum.”
The EU nationals who are helping UK companies to cope with labour and skill shortages are not queue jumpers; they are model employees who have left their homeland because they want to contribute to British society.
They share the joys and frustrations of British life.
EU national Alex Stratis said on Twitter: “Dear friends, I assure you I jumped no queue coming here and I have taken a liking to forming orderly lines everywhere, from airports, to ATMs, to the supermarket.”
Mrs May should have used her speech to praise EU nationals and tell them they are welcome after Brexit.
They didn’t jump any queue; they were exercising rights which provided opportunities for them and their UK employer.
Perhaps Mrs May could have explained why the Government has failed to take decisive action to close the skills gap, despite the repeated warnings from industry?
For example, 40 per cent of respondents to the latest Doncaster Business Insight survey said they had experienced problems finding staff with the right skills over the last three months; particularly for higher skilled and professional roles. Freedom of movement allows EU nationals to fill these roles and also train British workers.
It also means UK workers can hop on a plane to the EU and acquire skills to bring back to the UK.
Mrs May’s speech was a dreary spectacle.
It used a glib phrase to promote a mean-spirited message. If she wants to deliver a Brexit that works for Britain, she will need to set her sights much higher.