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Which way will Europe go in May 2014? Is free-movement the key to the elections and a just Europe?

In the aftermath of the euro-crisis, there is an increased awareness (both in the hallways of the EU parliament and amongst the citizens of Europe) that what is most needed is some type of political union. It is my contention that the greatest threat to such a political union and any sense of solidarity between the many people and nations that make up Europe is the attack on free movement that first arose from several national right-wing parties. Preventing free movement is a top priority for all these parties: Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, UK’s UKIP Party, Geert Wilder’s PVV party in the Netherlands, Norway’s Defense League, Sweden’s Democrats, Hungary’s Justice and Life Party, Bulgaria’s Attack Party, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Greek neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, Germany’s new anti-euro party (AfD), and closer to home the Flemish NVA Party led by Bart de Wever. All are expected to have record high turnout in May 2014; several are also trying to join forces to form an anti-European and anti-migration coalition. Their rhetoric that the euro-crisis and the rising unemployment figures are all due to the free-movement policies is immensely successful, so much so that it is being adopted by many more center and left-leaning parties. Within Europe, their discourse attacks the most recent members of the EU, those from Bulgaria and Romania. From beyond the borders of the EU, their discourse is one of a defense of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition that grounds Western and European civilization. Tragically, both of these positions often boils down to a form of Islamophobia as the implicit assumption is that free-movement has allowed for Muslims (the Jews of the 21st century) to invade Europe. This point is even more acute this week with Monday being International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
If they have their way in May 2014, Europe will shift so far to the right that it will, like Humpty Dumpty, have a great big fall. The solution is that the voting public needs to realize that immigrants, and

third-party nationals, are the solution and not the problem. Here are three reasons why Europe needs to further open the borders, rather than further restrict movement.

    1.     The economic expense of restricting free movement is excessive. David Cameron, among other leading European politicians, is trying to keep this evidence from the public until after the elections. It is not only a historical truth that Europe could not have survived without immigration; it is the current economic reality of all major European nations as demonstrated by Phillipe Legrain (LSE). The other economic cost is the rising budget of Frontex, the EU’s border management agency. While it’s official budget was only €86 million (in 2013), this is only the administrative costs as all the equipment costs (which are well into the billions) are taken directly from the national budgets of the poorest European countries (who are required by EU policy) to ‘control’ their borders.
2.     The ethical price is too high to pay. As Nina Perkowski documents there have been almost 20 000 deaths from those trying to get into Fortress Europe. This scandalous number does not include the many, including the elderly, children and pregnant women, who have been seriously injured, imprisoned or exiled all for wanting nothing more than a better life for themselves or their loved ones.  
3.     The controlling of these borders, especially as implemented by Frontex since Eurosur (a pan-European surveillance system) went live in December of 2013, has broken many basic human rights and thus blatantly ignored the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. These include the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in supposedly temporary prison cells, the ‘alleged’ use of torture, etc. 
(for the interactive map see: http://frontex.europa.eu/trends-and-routes/migratory-routes-map)
If the above three reasons to open Europe’s borders don’t convince you, perhaps the political or pragmatic truth will. As long as pro-European parties continue to adopt the anti-immigration rhetoric of the right and deny the importance of open borders, there is very little hope of either economic or political solidarity in Europe. Political solidarity in a democratic and just polity cannot be constructed upon a Schmittian friend/enemy distinction; the ‘us’ cannot only exist as long as there is a ‘them’ to define it.
What do you think? What way will Europe go? Is there another issue that you think will be more pivotal than free movement?


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  1. Thanks for raising this topic, Anya, that's really interesting! I agree with the urgency of questions about free movement, but I am uncertain about its role in the upcoming elections. I would have thought that most people expect migration within the EU to remain free, even if they don't like the fact (which is why they turn to issues such as denying social security to citizens of other EU-countries etc.). In the context of the German debate (which had some really ugly sides), the big question is how Roma families can be integrated into society. But this is question is somewhat different from, and not discussed in conjunction with, the question about the external borders. To be honest, I am rather pessimistic that things will change a lot there, maybe some more people from Syria will be let in, but that's a special case.
    I think that questions about the distribution of economic burdens and benefits will also be an important issue in the elections. There is a lot of rhetoric of who is paying for whom (often utterly hypocritical, as other effects, such as the low value of the Euro that boosts German exports, etc., are not taken into account). On the rhetorical level, European politics is sometimes reduced to a complicated game-theoretical question about who has interests in what, how they can push them through, etc. If that were all European politics would be about, that would be the worst defeat of politics by economics!

  2. Isn't the question about free mvt somehow the deeper question that these issues of integration and social security, medical benefits etc circle around? The assumption of right-wing parties, and the vast majority of the population susceptible to this rhetoric, is that if we didn't let them in we would not have to pay (anything) for them and they are costing the economy more than they are bringing in even though the economic reality is clearly the opposite. In that sense more awareness of the benefits and necessity of migration is the key – or do you still disagree?

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  4. Well, I think some aspects of the "benefits and burdens" debate are connected to migration, but there is also the dimension about the financial infrastructure of the EU, bailing out governments, etc. – which is not so directly related. I think this is also going to be an important dimension of the debates leading to the elections: can there be a way of keeping the union together with its weird mix of partial economic integration, partial political integration, and strong national interests?
    Having said this, I fully agree that explaining the economic effects of migration to a wider audience is very important. (But it should not be the only rhetorics used for discussing European politics.) I would assume, however, that the priority for many pro-European politicians is to get things settled with internal migration before they will start talking about migration from the outside. That's part of the reason why I'm pessimistic.

  5. I absolutely agree that there are many other key debates which are very important but my concern is that the rhetoric of the far-right has put all of these into one issue. I would very much hope that the other parties can resist this rhetoric and frame and so these other issues can be properly debated in the public sphere. Agreed that the parties should take on what should be an easier political struggle first – internal migration. Also, a question for all those living in different countries, what is the internal political discussion of the parties I listed above?

  6. Thanks for the post, Anya. I think Lisa raises a really interesting question when she talks about the distribution of economic burdens and benefits. Though immigration, for example, clearly brings with it sizable economic benefits, I think it is important to distinguish between how different groups are affected: some groups benefit economically much more from immigration than others. It may even by the case that some groups economically lose out as a result of immigration. Though I'm not an expert, I seem to remember reading a paper a couple of years ago that suggested that the lowest earners in the UK often lose out. The reasons for this are familiar. If correct, this would be an interesting conclusion since there seems to be a moral imperative to prioritise the claims of the poorest.

    To be sure, I'm not necessarily arguing against free movement. My point is two-fold. First, it seems that those in defence of free movement have to do more to deal with these kinds of arguments.I think that the failure to take this lines of reasoning seriously partly explains the public's general anti-free movement attitude. Second, those in defence of free movement may have to offer non-economic-based arguments also. My impression is that, as it currently stands, the issue hangs too much on detailed empirical assumptions that too few people are qualified to verify. Thoughts?

  7. Indeed you have a very good point Tom and one that also helps to explain which groups tend to support the right-wing parties. It is often the lowest earners and the previous wave of immigrants (often the same group as the lowest earners) who are threatened by a newer wave of cheaper labour who benefit least. Thus while there may be benefit overall to the economy, it certainly is not proportionally or justly distributed. It is precisely for this reason that I believe the second and third arguments I put forward, the ethical and legal, that can serve to address this group that does not benefit economically.

  8. Anya, would not the response to your second and third points be that we need to change how we keep immigrants out rather than saying we must let them in. Clearly thousands of deaths and human rights abuses is unacceptable – but I don't think it necessarily follows that allowing increased immigration is the solution.

    While I believe the economic impacts of immigration are highly positive, I also think that Tom is right saying that too much of the debate has focused on these empirical and complex points and has ignored populist sentiment to its detriment.

    Part of me fears that these right wing groups are strengthened by our dismissing these views as 'uninformed'.

  9. This is a great source of information on the economics of migration:

    summary: no impact on unemployment, a possible small negative effect on wages (which are negligible relative to the other much larger factors which affect wages) and they are a net contributor to the welfare state (they are much less likely to use services and provide a lot in the form of taxes).

  10. While I am not sure how these arguments would fare politically, I think that two very strong arguments for freedom of movement are:

    1) We are obligated to promote immigration of migrants from poorer countries as an increasing body of evidence is showing that (contrary to what we previously believed) this can be highly beneficial, bringing large amounts of income to the developing nation in the form of remittances, while also developing skills in the migrants who are likely to return home later in their lives.

    2) Reciprocity demands that we allow it. Imposing free capital markets across the world has brought huge gains to many, but the other half of this liberalisation is freedom of labour. To enforce one, but block the other, is tantamount to using our wealth and power to bully smaller countries into reforms which are designed to benefit us, while in turn denying them the reforms which might most benefit their people.

  11. Will, the reality is that as long as there is no global economic redistribution and 85 people have as much wealth as half of the globe, there will always be many of those lesser off willing to do just about anything to have a chance at a better life. As such, there might be many legal ways to 'keep people out' but most likely not ethical and safe. I recently read that the death toll at the US-Mexico border has killed and physically injured twice as many people as 9/11. Isn't part of the problem that this type of information is not part of the media's story?
    I don't think we should either a) dismiss these views as uninformed (typical left response) or b) adopt them in a water-down version (typical centre approach) but rather that we politically and publically challenge them in the media and thus try to manufacture consent in favour of a picture that characterises immigration as positive.

  12. Absolutely agreed with one small exception … "while also developing skills in the migrants who are likely to return home later in their lives". I am not sure of what the numbers are for migrants who stay/return but I think its better not to imply that they do/will go back home as this creates a serious hierarchy, conditinal hospitality and a great deal of political tension.

  13. I don't have hard data on this available (but I think there is hard data), but if I remember correctly, xenophobia in Germany is stronger in the former communist parts, where there are far less migrants, than in the Western parts. So part of the story seems to be a question of getting to know and getting used to living with people from different cultures. Now if you look at the European case, there could be a path that leads from successful migration and integration of people from within Europe to a more positive attitude towards migration, and from that to more open borders for people from outside the EU. That would be an optimistic scenario. I am unsure, however, whether it could solve the ethical issues of border protection, for a) it would take some time, and b) migration for people from outside Europe is likely to be allowed under certain condition (maybe with a scheme, where you get points for qualification, language skills, etc.), and the people who could migrate under such a scheme might be a different set than those who try to get to Europe via the unofficial routes…

  14. Anya, thanks for the post. I broadly sympathise with your point here about the difficulty of operationalizing an ethical and safe border regime. But I wonder whether there is a deeper point in Will’s comment that might be of import still. In your comment, you mention that people will risk terrible, life-threatening conditions to reach, e.g., Europe or the US given drastic wealth inequalities. That, I think, is true, but it is true even in a world with freer borders while the inequalities remain: there will remain people who will face extreme risks, e.g., crossing seas in poorly built boats run by underground exploitative middle-men, trying to access a ‘better life’. On that account, it looks as though other policies – i.e., things directed at the source – would be what are needed to tackle the problem. At any rate, that seems to be one response to it as an argument for freeing borders. In this respect, it is important that the relation between the means and ends of the arguments on free movement tie-up. Might we have a stronger case if try most forcefully to focus more directly on a positive moral case for being allowed to move across borders (e.g., rather than a negative of not being free to cross)?

  15. Andrew, I absolutely think that the problem originates in the immense inequality in wealth distribution and that as long as this remains people will migrate. It seems to me that a basic human right is the right to have a chance at a good life. Until there is fair global redistribution, this right should be guaranteed. Legalising free movement is part of this guarantee. Many of the risks undertaken by non-EU nationals are extreme because the act itself of entering the EU is illegal. If this were legalised, I do hope the risks and financial costs people took to enter the EU would be much less extreme.

  16. Tom, worth looking at Chris Bertram's response to this kind of argument: http://crookedtimber.org/2013/08/05/migration-and-the-least-advantaged/

    Basically he argues that even if we concede that immigration is generally positive but has a negative effect on the poor (which as Will argues is probably not the case), then the answer is not to forego the positive but to use the gains from immigration and redistribute them towards the poor.

    The politics around this are complicated (to say the least), something Bertram acknowledges. It doesn't seem very likely that the gains would in fact be redistributed (given all the familiar facts of economic/political power blocking redistribution). But I think its worth thinking considering.

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