The four fundamental economic freedoms (of people, of capital, of services and of goods) which lay at the foundation of the European Union have one main goal - to unite a once-divided continent. One of these four rights is presently under constant threat across Europe, namely the freedom of movement of people. This is because of the potential social implications posed by intra-European migration. The concern has sparked an unprecedented trans-continental debate.
The 1957 Treaty of Rome established the principle of people’s freedom to move within what was then called the European Economic Community, though it was not until after 2004, when the first wave of Eastern European countries joined the European Union, that the consequences of the 1957 Treaty were realized. By the time of the second Eastern Europe accession wave in 2007, most Western European countries took precautionary measures and restricted the access to their labour market for potential new migrants.
The restrictions adopted in 2007 will be lifted in January 2014. This looming deadline has led some Western European countries to call for a revision of the rules regarding freedom of movement. In April 2013, four Ministers from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom launched a strong attack in a joint letter regarding the freedom of movement of EU citizens. Arguing that their countries’ welfare systems have been under pressure due to great immigration influx, the ministers requested that new restrictive and punitive measures be adopted to curtail Romanian and Bulgarian migration.
Although these initiatives were launched by the receiving states with the supposed aim of protecting their citizens, they also have deep consequences for the future of Europe, especially in terms of turning back the history clock and reinstating a divide between East and West. Although the Iron Curtain fell twenty-four years ago, the borders have now moved from the physical realm to the semantic sphere. Dwelling in the minds of the European citizens and on the pages of Western European media is a new Berlin Wall mentality, which is based solely on the (perceived) detrimental influences of migration.
Politicians have readily given in to the populist-driven agenda rather than founding their policies on research and evidence. Between these two diametrically-opposed positions, there is everything to play for as the chosen direction can potentially affect deeper social values.
This mental segregation surrounding migration readily can be observed in public discourse. Although the freedom of movement for all EU citizens is a principle whose ultimate aim has been to strengthen the European identity, the everyday experiences of individuals who are migrants are a testimony to a real East/West divide. In particular, we see how Eastern Europeans who choose to relocate in another country are labelled migrants, which increasingly has negative connotations, while Western Europeans, many of whom are also working-age economic migrants, are called ‘expats’, a much more innocuous term.
Recently a UK Government minister caused anger because he challenged ingrained perceptions by comparing Britons who buy holiday homes abroad to Eastern Europeans planning to live in the UK. Calling a Western European who lives in another country a ‘migrant’ often triggers very defensive reactions because the term ‘migrant’ has become so associated with illegality including system abuse and criminality. Yet, these migrant stereotypes prove to be just myths. The four ministers who asked for further restrictions on the free movement of EU citizens could not provide documented evidence about the negative impact of Romanian and Bulgarian migration as asked by the European Commission. This was also acknowledged in a letter sent in early September by The House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on the Internal Market, Infrastructure and Employment to Mark Harper, Minister of State for Immigration. More broadly, despite all the controversy over recent westward migration waves, surprisingly only 3% of the EU population has actually moved from one country to another.
Ultimately, the European continent will not be able to move forward, fulfil its economic potential envisaged by the signatories to the Treaty of Rome and reach its ultimate goal of unity unless it revisits the migration semantics used in discussing European citizens’ freedom of movement. We should all strive to celebrate our common European identity born from the embrace of twenty eight distinctive national heritages.