By the editor, Feb 27 2020 01:26PM
What does “freedom of movement” mean to people? In the UK, I think it is generally regarded as a mixture of good and bad, depending on political views: as having the advantage of allowing people to work, study, and otherwise move across Europe with ease, and giving us access to the EU’s single market; and having the disadvantage of inhibiting the country from imposing its own limits on immigration. Some see it as all advantage, and others as all disadvantage, and some see it as a mixed bag. Few politicians would dare to claim it was an unalloyed good. To the extent that it is seen as good, it tends to be for economic and social, rather than political, reasons.
In the institutions of the European Union, and in other European states, I think there is more to it than this, and worth reflecting on why, and what the implications of that are.
As far as the European Parliament is concerned, “freedom of movement and residence for persons in the EU is the cornerstone of Union citizenship”, and it goes further, stating that the Schengen area (which many in the UK regard as having gone much too far) “is widely regarded as one of the primary achievements of the European Union”, despite acknowledging the strains it placed on the EU from migrants and refugees from elsewhere (https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/147/free-movement-of-persons). The European Commission refers to it as a “fundamental principle” (https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=457). This Commission press release refers to evidence that “more than two thirds of Europeans say that free movement is beneficial for their country”: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_13_1151.
The implementation of the principle of freedom of movement was undertaken gradually, affecting limited categories of workers to start with, only applying to all workers within EEC states from 1968, and given wider application to all citizens from 2004. Nevertheless, there is an aspect to the principle that seems to be intrinsic to the project as a whole, and not just its economic functioning.
Freedom of movement is of course restricted by borders, and borders in mainland Europe shifted considerably over the centuries, particularly after wars. After the First World War, and the disintegration of several empires, there was a concerted attempt for the first time to impose new borders to differentiate “nation states”. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it obviously created difficulties that were hard to resolve. What if there was an area including people from more than one nation? How should a person’s nationality be determined? What if populations changed?
It is often noted that the creation of the EU (as it is now) was inspired by a wish to bind countries closer together to avoid the horrors of the Second World War. But there were plenty of other tragedies throughout the 20th century arising from attempts to impose borders and force people out of the wrong areas and into the right ones. Instead of freedom of movement, much of the history of that century was one of forced movement – often what has since become known as “ethnic cleansing”. The following are examples, but this list is by no means exhaustive:
• 1.5 million Armenians were forced into the deserts of Syria and Iraq by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16, around a half of whom died as a result.
• 100,000 German-speakers were expelled from Alsace-Lorraine from 1918-21, and many more who remained were persecuted.
• Under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, 1.5 million Greeks and Turks were ”exchanged”, most of them forcibly.
• From 1935 to 1938, the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of members of national minorities to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
• Over 12 million Germans were forcibly transferred to Germany after the Second World War, mostly women, children and the elderly, about 1 million dying in the process (some of them tortured, starved, and worked to death in the same camps used for the Holocaust).
• From 1992, Serbia began systematically removing Muslims from Bosnian territory, triggering wars, atrocities, and a sequence of forced population movements, displacing several million people.
Apart from the immense human suffering involved at the time – and forced movement inevitably has a high death rate – there must have been a significant impact on the collective memories of societies affected. Some territories experienced forced movements several times over, and some people found themselves forced to move twice. So for example there were people who were forced out of Germany for being Jewish under the Nazi regime, who were later forced back into Germany for being German. The processes for determining which national or racial group a person belonged to – and so what rights (if any) a person may have – could be complex, bureaucratic, and often illogical. Even the Nazi regime gave up on agreeing a test of “Aryanness”, and eventually left it to local “ethnocrats” outside Germany to decide who should be so classified. After all, what does it mean to be a “German”, or “Pole” or anything else, after decades of shifting borders, population transfers, and mixed parentage?
After decades of this, it’s unsurprising that there’s been an attempt by the countries concerned to soften borders between them, and encourage citizens to live where they want to.
The UK’s borders have been, of course, more or less fixed by the sea (the exception, the Northern Irish border, serves to demonstrate some of the increased difficulties that land borders entail). So although it’s had its own experience of the horrors of the wars of the last century, it hasn’t had the experiences referred to above. It’s notable that one of the most high profile messages of the 2016 EU referendum campaign was a poster of a line of migrants and refugees headed “Breaking Point”. The message being: “this is what happens in other countries – this is what free movement does – we don’t want this here.”
Not all those in favour of leaving the EU share that sentiment of course. Nevertheless, the process of leaving the EU is now firmly in the hands of our current Government. Its chief negotiator is David Frost. His speech of 17 February 2020, setting out the UK Government’s approach to negotiating a new relationship with the EU, was strongly supported by the Prime Minister. The speech referred, approvingly, to a counter-revolution, seeking to reverse the first “transnational” revolution of the EU project:
“The second revolution is of course the reaction to the first – the reappearance on the political scene not just of national feeling but also of the wish for national decision-making and the revival of the nation state. Brexit is the most obvious example for that, but who can deny that we see something a bit like it in different forms across the whole Continent of Europe?”
The “reappearance… of national feeling” is a toned-down way of saying “re-emergence of nationalism”, and the other “forms” being obliquely referred to include the burgeoning far right movements in Germany, France and elsewhere, and the repressive governments of Poland and Hungary.
So the battle lines are drawn for our current “negotiation” with the EU: nationalism against transnationalism. On the one side, a belief that nationalism is a fact of life, and strong borders are needed between nations. On the other, a belief that such feelings can be transcended, and borders can be relaxed, or even abolished. Pessimism versus optimism, or reality versus naivety – depending where you stand.