The Guardian view on Brexit barriers and the young: a new deal is needed
An estimated three-quarters of young people aged between 18 and 24 voted remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Many did so in the conviction that leaving the European Union would turn Britain into a smaller, more insular place, closing off possibilities and prospects in their own lives. They feared a birthright was being lost; one which allowed them a bigger, wider sense of belonging.
Seven years on, that judgment is vindicated in a report by a cross-party committee of the House of Lords. Entitled The Future UK-EU Relationship, the peers’ analysis finds that, since the implementation of the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) with Brussels in 2021, “post-Brexit barriers to mobility between the UK and the EU, in both directions, have had an especially significant impact on young people”.
For emerging musicians seeking to tour in Europe, new regulations and visa restrictions that penalise inexperience have created an “unmitigated disaster”, in the words of one industry specialist quoted in the report. For other types of performers and artists, it is a similarly dismal story. Pathways to temporary professional employment in the EU – once a way to broaden experience and contacts in the early phase of working life – are now far more difficult to access. Government guidance to those navigating the new labyrinth of regulations has been woefully inadequate.
Further down the age range, school trips have become more complicated to pull off in both directions as a result of Brexit-related difficulties. The UK Border Force’s refusal to accept ID cards in place of passports and visas has contributed to a vertiginous drop-off in the number of visiting European school groups. In 2022, the number of pupils travelling on group trips to the UK was 83% lower than in pre-pandemic 2019. At universities, the ending of the Erasmus programme has led to an accompanying decline in incoming EU students. Britain has still not committed to rejoining Europe’s Horizon science research programme, a potentially transformative collaborative space for young academics.
This enforced narrowing of youthful horizons has occurred in plain sight, but been cravenly accepted as collateral damage by successive Conservative governments. Amid a poisoning of relations with Brussels, triggered by threats to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol, little or nothing has been done at ministerial level to address obvious problems and anomalies in post-Brexit arrangements. Young people have disproportionately paid the price.
Improved atmospherics and greater levels of trust after the signing of the Windsor framework, now offer an opportunity to do something about barriers that have no good reason to be there. The peers’ proposal for youth mobility schemes between EU member states and the UK, allowing adults under 30 to work temporarily in each other’s countries, would be a sensible starting point for a new negotiated settlement. A promise to resolve the question of ID cards and school trips to Britain, made by Rishi Sunak during his recent meeting with Emmanuel Macron, should swiftly be kept.
If Mr Sunak and his government seize the moment, making progress should not be difficult. As Lord Kinnoull, the chair of the European affairs committee that produced the report, noted with some asperity in an interview with this newspaper: “We are talking about travel through liberal democracies in Europe. We think we can do better and we must do better.” He is right on both counts.