Free to move, forbidden to live

January 2011: Germany aims to attract unemployed Europeans. March 2014: Jobless Spaniards to be kicked out of Germany. In between, the scandal of the treatment of seasonal foreign workers at the Amazon facilities in Bad-Hersfeld, which included recourse to a private security firm under suspicion of being staffed with neo-Nazis to discipline the recruits.

There is no contradiction between these news items. They are just the many faces of the same union, in which the rich northern countries run the job market to their fullest advantage: they entice the most qualified job-seekers from the depressed South with paid internships leading into secure employment, ruthlessly exploit the less qualified ones and draft new legislative language to limit their welfare obligations and undermine the principle of free movement, which is still the primary – albeit ever more fragile – social foundation of the thing we called Europe.

The free movement of people predates the treaty of Schengen, which currently regulates it, and goes all the way back to the 1958 Treaty of Rome, the precursor to the EEC and then the EU. It’s part of the four freedoms – of goods, capital, services and, finally, persons – on which the union rests. But it’s a freedom best understood as economic rather than social or human, in line with the other three. The key word is ‘movement’.

For capitalism to work, it is necessary for goods, capital and services to always be moving. For people, on the other hand, to settle often means to achieve security, loosely defined as ‘not having to move again’. In the language of decades of European treaties, therefore, we can see the tension that is being played out now against the backdrop of the ongoing currency crisis and the union’s expansion into less economically advanced regions.

Bulgaria and Romania. Or rather, Bulgarians and Romanians. This is what Europe is afraid of now. The inclusion of the two nations into Schengen, effective as of this past 1 January, is the latest fuel used by politicians of most stripes to stoke mass immigration fears. It was the spectre of Bulgarians and Romanians that David Cameron used to attack the institution of the free movement of people, and propose measures to limit the access of European citizens to British social services; and while ally Nick Clegg equivocated about the need to address the people’s loss of faith in the immigration system, the Labour opposition criticised Cameron for taking so long to actively discriminate against the newcomer nations, and for agreeing to the accession treaties in the first place.

In Germany, it’s Merkel’s CDU that is promoting the measures, with the effective support of the social democrats. In France, it’s Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party. In this climate of bipartisan attacks on the ‘fourth freedom’, the only opposition comes from Bruxelles – by which I mean the European Commission, since the Belgian government, ironically enough, has been expelling jobless workers on European passports at a vigorous rate since at least 2011, under the guidance of the wonderfully named liberal MP Maggie de Block.

Belgium could operate in this way without breaching any treaty because the freedom to move is just that, and not a right to residency or citizenship. By law, citizens of a Schengen nation can move to another nation without a job offer and seek work locally for a period of nine months, after which they would have to organise private health insurance and demonstrate financial self-sufficiency or risk being treated as overstayers. The ability of EU citizens to access social services and benefits after this nine-month period is left to the provisions of individual nations, which can be amended by their sovereign Parliaments as the respective domestic political climate dictates. So Commissioner Juan Barroso’s insistence, in admonishing David Cameron, that ‘free movement is a fundamental treaty principle that must be upheld’ clashes both with the narrow definition of this freedom, and with the fact that any broader interpretation is simply not backed up by any statute or treaty.

Expulsions are but an extreme measure, as jobless foreigners can be excluded – and often persuaded to leave willingly – simply by denying them access to welfare benefits and social services. Nonetheless, that they are now openly discussed and used as evidence of bold governance demonstrates the state of the immigration debate among liberals and conservatives alike, in which Southern and Eastern Europeans are now openly discussed in the language and with the racist overtones that one or two decades was reserved to so-called ‘extracomunitarians’ – the word for non-EU citizens which was never used to designate, say, Americans or Australians, but rather Africans and Slavs.

Lost in this debate, as always, is the degree in which the table was already tilted towards the richer nations, who have been able for a very long time to dispose of an eager, supple, scarcely-if-ever unionised workforce without needing to provide effective or long-term social integration, since, after all, none of those people ever lost their freedom to move somewhere else.


Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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