Undermining free movement

Migration in an age of austerity

6 February 2015
Only in en
How much longer can the European Union reasonably claim to guarantee the free movement of persons as a fundamental right? As the internalization of EU external migration policy starts to kick in, Peo Hansen examines the implications for the future of EU citizenship as we know it.

Owing to the current crisis in the European Union, growing disparities between member states and ever-increasing anti-immigration propaganda, Europe’s migration crisis no longer confines itself to matters of external migration and to those who want to enter the EU. To be sure, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the perpetual flow of new policy measures to toughen up on “illegal immigration” continue to sit atop the agenda. But in recent years, the migration debate in Europe has increasingly come to revolve also around the internal migration, or free movement, of EU citizens themselves.

Photo: Stephen Finn. Source: Shutterstock

“EU immigration”, “welfare tourism” or “poverty migration”, terms that are fast eclipsing “free movement”, has now become so contentious that Britain’s membership in the EU may very well come to hinge on it. And while the media sometimes gives the false impression to the contrary, Britain is far from alone in aiming to limit the scope of free movement and, most of all, to put paid to the social rights that are part and parcel of both the rules and values that underpin free movement. Many other members are hard at work advocating similar “reforms”, with Germany, for one, having recently introduced legislation to make it harder for unemployed EU citizens to stay in the country and to cut back on child benefits that EU citizens working in Germany have a right to claim as part of the EU’s free movement provisions. According to the Financial Times, the number of such child benefit claims (made by people paying taxes in Germany, one should add) are “tiny” and thus no strain whatsoever on the German purse.1

While there have been many controversies over free movement since it was stipulated in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the current row is clearly the most serious one to date. Adding to the seriousness of the situation is the fact that the current controversy has been going on for more than a decade now. What set it off was the successful introduction by established member states, led by Germany and Austria (but not Britain), of highly divisive transition rules to curb the free labour movement – and, above all, associated rights – of the new EU citizens in anticipation of EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007. As a result, the initial promise of “free movement” made to the cousins in the East quickly degenerated into a bitter and mendacious debate about eastern European “immigration problems”.

Since then free movement has been subjected to numerous infringements and further clashes between member states and between member states and the European Commission. One confrontation was triggered by the imposition of EU-sanctioned legal instruments (e.g. the Laval ruling in 2007) that have enabled employers to lower wages and working conditions for posted workers who, for competitive purposes, are brought from the poorer new member states for work in the old – a new order totally at odds with the letter and spirit of free movement’s equal treatment law. Another case in point concerns the French mass expulsions of Roma EU citizens that hit the headlines in the summer of 2010. This had been, and continues to be, common practice in France (but also, to a lesser extent, in other EU countries), with over 10,000 Roma EU citizens being expelled in 2009 alone. Around the same time, it was revealed that the Dutch government was preparing to take measures that would allow the expulsion of EU citizens who were making “disproportionate claims” on the social benefit system, something that immediately prompted an angry response from the Polish government. Similar protests accompanied a subsequent decision on the part of Finland and the Netherlands to veto Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen membership bid, a move that exacerbated the so-called Schengen crisis that had erupted in the spring of 2011, following France’s attempt to stop Tunisians travelling from Italy to France.

Amid this multifaceted controversy, it is the crisis-induced increase in the free movement of EU citizens from the EU’s peripheral member states that has proven to be most significant. By April 2013, the situation had deteriorated to the point where Austria, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands felt the time ripe for a frontal attack on free movement. In a joint letter to the Irish presidency and the Commission, these governments demanded that the system be overhauled: “the right of EU citizens to freedom of movement is not unconditional”, they wrote. The letter claimed that “certain immigrants from other member states […] avail themselves of the opportunities that freedom of movement provides, without, however, fulfilling the requirements for exercising this right”. Consequently, “[t]his type of immigration burdens the host societies with considerable additional costs, in particular caused by the provision of schooling, health care and adequate accommodation”. Thus the letter called for stronger and more efficient expulsion measures and re-entry bans applicable to EU citizens: “[a]ll necessary measures need to be taken to deal with the consequences of this type of immigration and to fight its causes. This includes legal as well as financial measures.”2

Although presented as incontestable facts, the letter’s sweeping allegations were never substantiated. As with so many other alleged “facts” being thrown around in the immigration debate, this is how it should be; because no one else has been able to provide such substantiation. This is due to the fact that in order for an EU migrant to lay claim to the welfare benefits enumerated in the letter, he or she first has to earn them through employment and taxation.

The then president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialist and Democrats in the European Parliament, Hannes Svoboda, strongly opposed the proposals set out in the joint letter. Nonetheless, Svoboda can be said to have unintentionally met his adversaries halfway when coining the term “socially motivated migration” and conceding that this constitutes a growing problem. Although Svoboda’s solutions to this alleged “problem” departed markedly from those of the letter’s authors (fighting poverty instead of widening the North-South and West-East divides in the EU), Svoboda’s “social migration” terminology was still symptomatic of where the debate was headed, much like the coining of the term “economic migration” was symptomatic of where the asylum debate was headed in the late 1980s.

The then Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s curt response to the four governments was even more symptomatic in its desperate attempt to distance free movement from any taint of immigration. As far as Malmström was concerned the true scandal was that “EU citizens who have the right to travel, live, work and study where ever they want in the Union are put on a par with immigrants from countries outside the EU. For instance, they are being called EU immigrants, a concept that does not exist”. “They are mixing apples and oranges like anything”, Malmström went on: “They are mixing up internal EU mobility and immigration.”3 Malmström was seconded by her colleague Viviane Reding, then Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. In a speech to the Trieste Citizens’ Dialogue, Reding wanted “to make it absolutely clear: free movement is a fundamental right, and it is not up for negotiation. Let language not betray us: European citizens exercising their right to free movement are not ‘immigrants’. All European citizens have the same rights.”4

Not “immigrants”? Of course, the European Commission recognizes the importance of winning this war of definition and distinction, since it also knows that “immigrants” in the world of politics rarely if ever signify some long-forgotten dictionary definition of people who move and settle across state borders – in which case it would be perfectly appropriate to refer to EU citizens moving across state borders in the EU as “immigrants”. As the Commission is acutely aware, “immigrants” is a pejorative term that refers to those who are not “free” and to those who justifiably, in the eyes of both governments and Brussels, should be subjected to a number of stringent restrictions and controls. To keep the distinction between immigrants and free moving EU citizens intact thus amounts to a struggle of existential importance for the Commission, at least for the time being. This much it acknowledges.

What Brussels does not acknowledge though, is why Berlin, London or the Hague should want to treat destitute Bulgarians or Greeks any better in Germany, Britain or the Netherlands than they are treated at home. After all, consenting to the import of one of the consequences of austerity (namely, as in this case, crisis emigration) defeats one of the purposes of the policy that many member states and the Commission have worked so hard to impose. In the speech referred to above, for instance, Commissioner Reding followed up her defence of free movement with an equally powerful vindication of austerity: “we have come far in our efforts to overcome the crisis […] proving all the doomsayers wrong”; “far reaching and sometimes painful reforms are starting to pay off. We can see green shoots”.

In short, allowing for what is now blazoned abroad as “poverty migration” risks having some of austerity’s social costs come home to roost. Just as the Commission and the member states want to control migration from the EU’s external periphery, such as North Africa or the Middle East, the EU governments at the centre want to introduce safeguards against the perceived downsides of migration from the EU’s internal periphery, from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria. To provide an illustration of the former, in 2013 the Commission asserted with regard to migration to the EU from Africa and elsewhere: “In the absence of effective governance, the costs of migration may be significant, and can include social tensions with host populations – often exploited by populist forces – and pressure on scarce resources. Uncontrolled migration may also aggravate security threats”.5 It is precisely such “effective governance” of migration that many EU governments now want to convince the Commission to impose inside the Union as well.

There is certainly nothing surprising about this development. The appearance of governments’ calls for safeguards against “poverty migration” is what we should have learnt to expect when the socioeconomic inequalities and imbalances in political power are allowed to widen significantly between countries and regional blocs – and this irrespective of whether or not immigration from the poorer to the richer is actually increasing. It is also in this process of growing inequalities between senders and recipients of migrants that actors in politics and the media start to substitute “movement” and “mobility” for “migration” and “security threats”, thus indicating that the game has changed from one of gain to one of blame. In fact, these safeguarding manoeuvres towards Africa, on the one side, and the EU periphery, on the other, should be conceived as constituting two sides of the same neoliberal trajectory, such that migration and free movement policies are dissociated, or disembedded, from questions of social incorporation and citizenship.

For a long time, the EU’s political establishment could place the blame for alleged migration problems exclusively on those coming from outside the EU, mostly the “non-Europeans”, the Africans, the Muslims and so on. Since the eastern enlargements and the onset of the current crisis, many of these problems are now increasingly being projected also onto EU citizens themselves. As a Financial Times poll from 2013 revealed, the proposals to implement “restrictions on EU migrants’ rights to benefits were backed by 83 per cent of Britons, 73 per cent of Germans and 72 per cent of French respondents.”6 Note too that the Financial Times, like all other media outlets, now has adopted the term “EU migrants” as the new definitive and seemingly neutral designation of certain categories of EU citizens, “EU migrants” being the category that the EU Commission claims does not exist but which it has itself helped bring about. After all, if “There is no such thing as a free lunch” in the EU, as former Commission boss Manuel Barroso asserted in defence of Brussels’ massively impoverishing austerity drive, why should there be such a thing as free movement?

As a consequence, the European migration drama is now being played out not only between EU members and non-members across the Mediterranean, but also between the members themselves, pitting the British against the Poles, Germans against Bulgarians, Dutch against Romanians and everybody against the Roma, in a manner akin to the bigoted articulation of the sovereign debt crisis (which has pitted e.g. “diligent” Germans against “lazy” Greeks).

It is important to mention though – as seen in the joint letter cited earlier – that the phenomenon of “EU migrants” is also leading some of the most powerful EU members to close ranks, or as the Financial Times has it: “It is one of the few policy areas where the interests of London, Paris and Berlin could converge.”7 True, Angela Merkel has voiced some irritation over David Cameron’s more far-reaching proposals to curtail free movement. Yet this should not be misunderstood as disagreement on the fundamentals. To “prevent ‘benefit tourism’ and a wave of poverty-driven immigration”, as German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble recently stressed, is high on the German agenda.8

Such consensus may signal the possibility of new inhibitions on free movement in the near future as well as a further escalation of the overall controversy. But make no mistake; the “right” types of EU migrants from peripheral member states will continue to be let into the more affluent ones. During 2012 and 2013 no less than 30 per cent of Romania’s resident doctors left the country; since 2008 some 14,000 doctors have left Romania, a haemorrhaging that is leaving whole swaths of the country starved of doctors. As a result of the growing cleft between EU members, the dynamics of “brain drain”, previously reserved for countries in the Global South, has thus made its way into the EU. And who are the main profiteers of this devastating development? Well, precisely some of the same countries that never miss an opportunity to disparage Romanian migrants as benefit tourists and dangerous budget burdens. In recent years Britain and Germany, for instance, have received some 4000 Romanian doctors each.9

While the growing migration crisis over “free movement” could be seen as calling into question the whole edifice and hence the whole future of EU citizenship as we know it, it could also be taken as a sign that some of the features of the EU’s external migration policy are about to be internalized. As many reports confirm, this is what a growing number of EU citizens from the Union’s expanding periphery are already experiencing.

  1. Jeevan Vasagar and George Parker, "Germany considers capping child benefit for migrants", Financial Times, 28 August 2014, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/48e0faec-2df4-11e4-8346-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3Qx74P8Fj
  2. Letter to Mr Alan Shatter, President of the European Council for Justice and Home Affairs, 15 April 2013, docs.dpaq.de/3604-130415_letter_to_presidency_final_1_2.pdf
  3. "Hot om bidragsturism får fart igen", Svenska Dagbladet, 3 June 2013, www.svd.se/nyheter/inrikes/hot-om-bidragsturism-far-fart-igen_8234964.svd
  4. Viviane Reding, "Main Message: Trieste Citizens' Dialogue", Speech/13/706, European Commission, 16 September 2013, europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-706_en.htm
  5. European Commission, "Maximising the Development Impact of Migration: The EU contribution for the UN High-level Dialogue", COM(2013) 292 final, Brussels, 21 May 2013, 4. See: ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/communication-maximising-the-development-impact-of-migration_en_11.pdf
  6. "Poll backlash expected amid hostility to migrants in EU", Financial Times, 18 October 2013, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/945b9c46-3810-11e3-8668-00144feab7de.html#axzz2kbZVJyKA
  7. Ibid.
  8. Karl Lamers and Wolfgang Schäuble, "More integration is still the right goal for Europe", Financial Times, 1 September 2014, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5565f134-2d48-11e4-8105-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3Qx74P8Fj
  9. "Romanians despair that wealthy Britain is taking all their doctors", Financial Times, 14 January 2014, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f4c0b734-7c70-11e3-b514-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3OeCXexem

Published 6 February 2015

Original in English
First published in Eurozine

© Peo Hansen / Eurozine

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