Freedom of movement: remedy or disease?

Dr Adem Kumcu, President of UNITEE.

According to some experts on EU affairs, the defining political issue of coming years will be free movement of labour. We can already see it unfold: the daily political debate is increasingly polarised between those who advocate for limiting freedom of movement and those instead calling for its expansion. A vivid representation of this debate is to be found in the constant exchanges between British Prime Minister Cameron, the main supporter of the need to scale down the right to free movement, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her reminder that freedom of movement is one of the fundamental values at the core of the EU, and thus untouchable.

It is exactly its position at the core of the European Union that makes the debate on free movement so relevant:  as the one of the ‘four freedoms’, as they are called, more connected to the concept of EU citizenship, its evolution will have long-term effects for all of us. For this reason, it is important to understand the two sides’ motives, without dismissing one or the other. It is worth to understand both those who think free movement is a ‘disease’ and those who think it is a ‘remedy’, if we may say so.

Let us start with the negative aspects of free movement. They are commonly represented by media and political leaders with alarmed tones which more often than not fall into the scope of populism and easy electoral gain. But this does not mean that they are not existent: on the contrary, they manifest realistic concerns on the health of free movement principle. And indeed, in recent years some worries about freedom of movement have emerged, stronger after the 2007 accession of Romania and Bulgaria: among all the possibility that it might endanger social cohesion and bring about delinquency and the risk of drain on national finances, present in the debate with the term ‘benefits tourism’. The perceived risk, in other words, is that a policy of open borders will foster movement of individuals from less favoured areas to the most advanced ones, thus bringing about unsustainable pressure on local health and education, on the one hand, and an increased wage competition, on the other. An issue which does not have to be underestimated is also the potential cultural clash deriving from the new diversity of our pluri-national societies.

All these aspects have contributed in creating a sense of impending danger, which has quickly grown to encircle the concept itself of European Union, as it has been well expressed at the last European elections with the exploit of so-called ‘Eurosceptic’ parties. The solutions advocated by them seems easy: the return to a policy of closed borders. The ideal set-up of these groups is the one of ‘fortress Europe’, reinforced: not only strong controls on the external borders of the EU, but also limitations at its very heart.

As appealing as this solution might look, I cannot help from seeing it as defeatist and backward-looking. It is risk-averse, but as such it ends up throwing away the baby with the bath-water. Indeed, with all its risks – which must certainly be correctly managed – freedom of movement also offers opportunities to Europe. In our global times, we cannot afford to close ourselves off to the world: to be successfully competitive we have to manage complexity, not to erase it.

And indeed, free movement of labour has shown so far to be an important tool to decisively answer to some of the most pressing needs of the modern economy. First, it contributes to fill the needed jobs with the right people, notwithstanding their location. A Polish firefighter unable to find a job in his hometown can find one in London: in this way, Poland will have one less person unemployed and the UK will have one more fireman. Far from being a drain on public resources, it is easy to see how such a movement can help national finances, by allowing a more efficient allocation of resources.

Secondly, in an era in which job creation is seen as a utopia, free movement of labour also contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship. Not only migrants have been proven to be more prone to creating business and become entrepreneurs, but also they can foster the flux of capitals and ideas from one place to the other, thus favouring innovation. EU migrants, thanks to their multiple belonging and their ability to bridge countries and cultures, can also make easier for companies to internationalise, a factor key in determining success.

There is a third area, finally, in which free movement has value-added for the EU, and it is as a tool for external projection. Free movement is the characterising feat of the European Union, and as such is perceived by many other regional blocs around the world willing, in some measures, to follow Europe’s path, from MERCOSUR to ASEAN. We might say that free movement is the key constituent of the EU’s brand in the world, allowing it to position itself.

There is also a more practical way for the EU to make good use of free movement of individuals, and it is as an instrument of strategic partnership with neighbouring countries: allowing individuals from countries such as Tunisia, Morocco or Ukraine to travel more freely inside the EU could be a terrific way to strengthen relationships with those countries and contribute to their development. Engaging civil society first will make it possible for broader political change to happen. An example of this process is currently taking place in Turkey with the visa dialogue, started in 2013. I follow the process with interest and I believe that, in case of a positive conclusion, it will put Turkey and the EU closer than they have ever been, with consequences ranging from political stability to security and energy supply.

As all principles, it is clear that free movement has its own limits and problems, and the voices highlighting them should be listened to. But it is also true that altogether renouncing to it would be a blind choice: not only because of its prominence in making the European Union work as it does, but especially for the opportunities to competitiveness and progress it offers, both domestically and internationally. If Europe wants to be a successful actor in the global era, it cannot afford to look backward. It needs to understand its successes, see what is not working well and try to solve it. Freedom of movement can definitely be a remedy for the EU’s current problems. But all remedies have risks. It is focusing only on them, without looking at the positive sides, that transforms them in a disease.

Retrieved from The New European, issue 4