Perspectives on mobility in an age of complexity

Former UK Foreign and Defence Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind used his platform at Worldwide ERC’s Talent Mobility in EMEA conference to offer his insights into today’s pressing political issues.

Malcolm Rifkind
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Brexit, migration, terrorism, and the rule of law – and their impact on business and mobility. Ruth Holmes was there to hear what Sir Malcolm had to say.Opening his talk at Worldwide ERC's Talent Mobility in EMEA conference, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former UK Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary, remarked on the mobility sector's valuable work in the context of political and economic changes."Every age is an age of transition," he noted, "but your industry, the conference you are having today, in a sense speaks for itself. Talent mobility has gone to such a level, it's so much part of our world, that here you are, some 200 of you – HR people, service providers – a whole spectrum of professions and expertise there to deal with what is a global phenomenon about having the right talent in the right place at the right time."

The UK and Europe

As Sir Malcolm shared with the audience his thoughts on "the extraordinary challenges that will have a relevance to your work and an immediate impact on your challenges over the years to come", the question of the UK's membership of the European Union (EU) and its relationship with it was top of the agenda.At the same time as the conference was taking place in London, UK Prime Minister David Cameron was in Brussels for talks with his European Union counterparts on the UK's relationship with the EU. Two days later, Mr Cameron set the date for the UK referendum on EU membership, having achieved some of the concessions he believes will secure the UK's sovereignty as part of the EU.Professing he was "sympathetic to the EU, but not wild about it", Sir Malcolm – one of only four ministers to have served in both Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's cabinets – made the case that the EU would lose its strongest advocate of free markets if the UK voted to leave, and would be a very different union without it.He went on to suggest that, if the outcome of the UK's vote was to leave the European Union, the EU would tilt towards protectionism."There are many European countries, along with many in the world, that are protectionist," he said. "They don't like competition, they don't like free trade, and they certainly don't like competition in services as well. France has a long tradition of protectionism, and so have a number of other countries."I don't think anybody in Europe will dispute the fact that the UK, on this particular issue, has been on the side of the angels for the free movement of goods and services. So it will be a very different European Union."

Answering the case for Brexit

Sir Malcolm discussed some of the arguments for leaving the EU put forward by colleagues critical of the Union. Using Norway and Switzerland as examples, he evaluated the pro-Brexit argument that the UK could leave the EU, then negotiate and pay to access the single market.Here, he said, the UK might find itself paying a subscription to access the single market, then having to accept and incorporate the Union's future laws, directives and regulations into UK law, but without the opportunity to influence content.
This would not work for a country like Britain, which currently had a relatively large say on these issues, he argued."Those of my colleagues who want Britain to leave the European Union have said that they would want to reach a bilateral agreement which would enable the UK to continue to have access," said Sir Malcolm. "If I may be so bold as to say so, I think that is a pretty dumb situation – to leave an organisation where you already have all of these advantages and then immediately set about trying to negotiate to get back to enjoying them."It will require sensitivity, imagination and detailed examination to see how you can finesse the personal aspirations of individuals and companies to maximise their opportunities in the global context.Suggesting that the British public was, by nature, reluctant to endorse significant change with uncertain outcomes, he added, "My guess, with an important caveat, is that it is likely – very likely – that the UK will vote to stay in the EU, but not by as big a margin in the past." The referendum's outcome, he said, could "get quite uncertain" as polling day approached.The "important caveat" was the issue of immigration, which Sir Malcolm believes is "consuming the whole of Europe at this time". He called the eurosceptic claim that the problem would disappear if Britain could renounce the European Convention on Human Rights and return to total control of its own borders "a bogus argument, for all sorts of reasons"."But the single most important one is the one I've just been mentioning," he went on. "If you want to continue to have the benefits of the single market by negotiation, you have to have left the EU, then acknowledge the continuation of the free movement of labour. So you are back into the same circle you have to come to terms with."

Migration and immigration

With a Brussels summit of EU and Turkish leaders focusing on migration set for 7 March, Sir Malcolm outlined his thoughts on this as the second significant issue facing businesses and mobility.Describing perhaps "the most significant movement of people globally since the Second World War", he analysed the possibility of an imminent suspension of at least part of the Schengen Agreement, a cornerstone of the European Union's commitment to the free movement of its citizens.Sir Malcolm reminded his audience that the EU had created Schengen to assist its own citizens to move freely, not as a means of enabling people from the rest of the world to move freely once they arrived in an EU country."Already, you will have seen from the press and reports on radio and television that the continental European countries are re-establishing border controls, building fences, doing all sorts of things – not necessarily because they won't accept genuine refugees, but because any country, however civilised, needs to have control over its borders in the sense of knowing who it is admitting, temporarily and in the long term, whether they are genuine asylum seekers, and whether they meet the normal criteria."One of the consequences is that, if you cannot adequately monitor your external border–in the case of the problems facing Europe at the moment, this effectively means the Mediterranean countries, particularly Greece and Turkey – then Schengen will be, at some time over the next few weeks or months, heading to suspension."Its members hope, and I hope, that this will be a temporary phenomenon – and not a temporary phenomenon that lasts several years."That, again, goes to the very heart of the kinds of issues for those involved in mobility. Things become more complicated and difficult than in the past because of the more likely need for visas for admission to be granted for individuals."

Terrorism's impact on mobility

Sir Malcolm, who was chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee from 2010 to 2015, took terrorism and its implications for mobility as his third theme. He talked about the impact of terrorism not only on its immediate victims but also on a country's population and economy, giving the example of Egypt and its tourism industry.Sir Malcolm acknowledged the understandable emotional response to terrorist events and its impact on the decisions individuals made. "I suspect that some of you have clients who are ever so slightly worried and uncertain that they really want to move to Paris," he said."A lot of what they hear about and read about Paris being vulnerable to terrorist attack is hugely exaggerated. The reality of it is that decisions we take about our lives are driven by emotion – by fear, or anxiety, or concern."Prejudice, as well as fear, is a consequence of terrorism. It a significant and destructive force that plays into the hands of terrorists, said Sir Malcolm, as well as into people's willingness to live in other countries and their relationships with people from different cultural or social backgrounds.

The importance of the rule of law

Sir Malcolm, a serving member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Eminent Persons' Group, also gave his thoughts on the wider issue of the question of rule of law, its existence or absence, and the consequences for realising economic and individual potential.Reflecting on global political and economic progress since the early 1990s, which saw the end of the Cold War and the Soviet era and the demise of communism, he offered his view of what distinguished a free society from an authoritarian state, and what that meant for investment, economic and personal aspirations, and growth.Recourse to the rule of law, which Sir Malcolm believes is defined by an independent judiciary that can hold a government to account, was, with freedom from corruption, the bedrock of societies and growth, he suggested. "In some cases, businesses and individuals will be quite happy to locate in, or relocate to, authoritarian countries, because they feel that the risk is not too serious."But they will need to think quite hard about where the balance of their advantage lies. You have to be satisfied that there are remedies [in the rule of law], otherwise your whole economic enterprise might be destroyed at the whim of a corrupt government," he cautioned.

Reasons for optimism?

Despite the significance and challenge of the four issues, Sir Malcolm was upbeat about the prospects and direction of travel for mobility."You are involved in working with the grain of human history," he concluded. "I think it will require sensitivity, imagination and detailed examination to see how you can finesse the personal aspirations of individuals and companies to maximise their opportunities in the global context, while, at the same time, navigating through the problems of corruption and oppression."But I think things are actually quite exciting, and a lot of it is very positive." Relocate Global Spring Issue 2016

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