Monday, December 10, 2007

Open Borders, Closed Minds

by TOL
7 December 2007

Movement from poor to rich EU countries is a far smaller problem than the union’s muddled migration policies.

Freedom abounds in the European Union. Well, in print at least: the word appears nearly three dozen times in the European Union Treaty and the European Community Treaty.

EU law-writers are masters of obfuscation, but at times they can express themselves with admirable precision. The first paragraph of Article 39 of the Community Treaty, for instance, concisely states, “Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Community.”

All EU citizens are meant to enjoy freedom of movement in the bloc. So how is it that entire populations of former communist states are still denied the freedom to work wherever they please?

The “four freedoms” of movement of goods, services, labor, and capital rest on a fundamental principle of EU law: No member state may discriminate against the citizens of another on grounds of nationality.

So on what grounds did Italy recently deport a couple of hundred EU citizens, nearly all of them Romanians?

The recent arrest of an ethnic Romani man from Romania for a brutal murder sparked an outcry in Italy against his fellow countrymen. Italian authorities defended the deportations, saying Romanians committed a disproportionate number of crimes. EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini supported his country’s move, pointing out that the legislation on freedom of movement allows the principle to be waived if necessary to protect public order and public security. He was rebuked in a European Parliament resolution, and by individual deputies, for breaking with the practice of EU commissioners not to get involved in their home country’s domestic matters, Hungary’s Viktoria Mohacsi, herself of Romani origin, asked if the justice commissioner’s role was not “to ensure that discriminatory measures are forbidden and make concrete proposals to [encourage] member states to develop integration strategies?”

One Italian politician and staunch advocate of EU enlargement made a more subtle criticism. Prime Minister Romano Prodi, an energetic former European Commission president, suggested the union should move toward a common policy on dealing with individual migrants rather than interfere with the fundamental principle of free movement.


When “old” EU members were justifying their erection of barriers against workers from most of the countries that entered the union in 2004 and 2007, they did not argue for an infringement of free movement, although that is exactly what they intended.

Rather, they fell back on the economic effect the arrival of large numbers of new workers might have, although EU legislation does not anticipate any such line of argument. Vienna blamed pessimistic economic forecasts. Berlin and Brussels mentioned high unemployment. Paris enacted a gradual lifting of restrictions, starting with low-paid sectors where workers were most needed.

The real state of play regarding immigration and the labor market has unfortunately been overlooked amid all the news of Polish invasions and Romanian (read Gypsy) hordes. It may come as a surprise to many Britons and Italians to learn that labor migration from the new to the old member states is comparatively insignificant compared to migration among the rich members or to migration from outside the union.

As the European Commission noted last year, the effect of increased westward movements of workers from the post-2004 member states has been “rather limited.”

Eurostat data indicate that in 2005 and 2006, citizens of the new EU states made up only 0.4 percent of the working-age population of the old members. In contrast, workers from other old EU countries made up about 2 percent of the EU-15 working-age population.

In truth, much of the pain due to labor migration from new to old members can be traced back to the EU’s inability to reach consensus on migration policy, and beyond that to deep ideological rifts within the most prosperous free-trade zone ever devised.

One step toward putting the question of westward migration within the EU on a more rational footing would be to acknowledge that it is not about massive population shifts.

Naturally, the media have focused on the countries where there has been a large influx of Eastern European workers – mainly Britain and Ireland. But there have been few complaints about these “hordes” taking jobs from locals, and the newcomers have not slowed the vigorous migration of workers from the older EU countries.


Behind the talk of long-term migration, the aging workforce and making Europe more competitive lurk the same dilemmas that have stalked the EU’s back corridors since the bloc’s inception, becoming acute with the Maastricht Treaty’s announcement of “an ever-closer union” of economic and political partners; the death of Maastricht’s prodigal child, the European Constitution project; and the constitution’s rebirth as the wishy-washy “reform treaty” that will soon go to members for consideration.

The dilemmas of balancing economic openness with national security or extending economic freedoms into the sphere of private life; and the agonizing over how much national sovereignty should be sacrificed for the sake of a more streamlined, richer, and perhaps more secure union make for clamorous arguments in the rich, western two-thirds of the EU but have relatively little impact on most people’s lives. Citizens of the other third feel these questions in a much more tangible way, gallingly so when all they are trying to do is raise their living standards.

"It's absurd to have 27 immigration policies in Europe," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso remarked over the Italy-Romania spat.

But that is what the EU does have. The version of the reform treaty now circulating would strip member states of the right to veto new immigration and asylum laws. That will be a very welcome novelty and could lead to a more humane way of incorporating newcomers into the bloc. Other innovations that could simplify EU decision making and inject much-needed transparency include cutting the size of the Commission and creating a permanent presidency to manage EU leaders’ summits. But even if all 27 members ratify the treaty it will not come into full effect until 2017. The Commission and national leaders – not to mention Romania and Italy – need to act long before then on fairer migration policies.

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