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Sadiq Khan: ‘Free young people from Brexit work and travel ban’

London mayor calls for ‘youth mobility agreement’ in one of the most pro-European interventions by a Labour politician since EU exit.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has called for young people to be able to move freely to and from the EU for the first time since Brexit in order to lessen the economic and cultural damage caused by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Speaking to the Observer in one of the most pro-European interventions by a senior Labour politician since the 2016 referendum, Khan said he backs either a bespoke “youth mobility” agreement with EU countries, or changes to post-Brexit visa rules that currently restrict travel and the ability to work in other European countries.

His remarks suggest Labour, under Khan, will be running a strongly pro-European, anti-Brexit campaign for the mayoral elections in the capital in May.

While not advocating rejoining the EU, Khan has previously called for a “pragmatic debate” on whether the UK should rejoin the single market and customs union when the terms of the Brexit deal come up for discussion again in 2025.

The Observer understands that the office of Labour leader Keir Starmer, who opposed Brexit but has since been reluctant to criticise it for fear of offending Labour voters who backed leaving the EU, was informed of Khan’s comments and did not try to block them.

Khan’s main challenger as he seeks a third four-year term is expected to be the rightwing Conservative and strongly pro-Brexit candidate Susan Hall.

In 2021, Hall was widely criticised, even by Tories, for arguing that the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump was the equivalent of UK politicians who opposed Brexit.

A Labour source said: “I think Sadiq’s people realise how anti-Brexit most voters are in London and understandably they want to appeal to them.”

A source close to the mayor said there were about 1.2 million people from EU countries who were eligible to vote in the mayoral contest.

With recent polls showing that most people now regard Brexit as a failure – and support for closer ties with the EU growing - Khan said that the capital had been particularly hard hit.

“The government’s hard Brexit has done damage right across London and it is young people who have been hardest hit in so many ways.

“Not only is it more difficult for young people to move abroad for work, but the government’s wrong-headed decision to leave the Erasmus scheme has made it much harder for students to study abroad too.

“I’m clear that I’d be supportive of a youth mobility scheme, which would benefit us economically, culturally and socially. While the UK may no longer be part of the EU, London is, and always will be, a European city.”

Khan wants new rules to allow young people to study, travel and fill vacancies in key sectors of the economy. This would apply to Londoners wanting to go to EU countries and young EU citizens wanting to come to London.

Last July, former Tory cabinet minister and leading Brexiter George Eustice backed a similar idea, calling on Rishi Sunak’s government to open bilateral negotiations with EU nations immediately, with a view to offering young Europeans under 35 the right to two-year visas to work in this country.

Eustice said the deals should be reciprocal, so that young UK citizens under 35 would be able to live and work for two years in the same EU member states with which deals were struck. This, he said, would be part of a much-needed “post-Brexit reconciliation” with our European neighbours.

The Home Office has said it is looking at the possibility of some form of youth mobility scheme.

It is understood that Khan believes a new scheme could be of particular benefit to sectors such as hospitality, which is historically reliant on EU workers, who do not meet the criteria for a visa under the new points-based immigration scheme.

The hospitality sector has seen some of the highest worker shortages post-pandemic.

Naomi Smith, chief executive of the internationalist thinktank Best for Britain, said polling by her organisation showed clear support for such a move, as more and more people concluded that Brexit was restricting young people’s life chances and harming the economy.

“A reciprocal youth mobility scheme with the EU is win-win, giving young Brits the chance to live, work and travel across the continent while throwing a lifeline to UK businesses still suffering from acute labour shortages made worse by Brexit,” she said.

Charles Owen, managing director of Seasonal Businesses in Travel, a trade body that represents many holiday companies, said: “The UK has some of the best-loved pubs, clubs, hotels and restaurants in the world but the pandemic, food inflation, the energy crisis and labour shortages has hit the industry hard. A youth mobility scheme is not a magic bullet; but it could relieve some of the pressure on labour shortages and save some from pulling down their shutters for good.”

A recent independent report by the analyst Cambridge Econometrics, commissioned by City Hall, showed London has 290,000 fewer jobs than if Brexit had not happened, with half the total 2m job losses nationwide coming in the financial services and construction sectors.

The report found that the average Briton was nearly £2,000 worse off in 2023, while the average Londoner was nearly £3,400 worse off last year as a result of Brexit. It also calculates that there are nearly 2m fewer jobs overall in the UK because of Brexit, with almost 300,000 fewer jobs in the capital alone.


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