Freedom of movement is not just an economic good, but a bulwark against oppression

Freedom of movement is often presented as an economic good, written Floris de Witte. But it is much more than that. It enables Europeans to pursue a way of life and a quality of life that simply might not be possible in the state where they were born. And by limiting the ability of national politicians to scapegoat and exclude the foreigner, it serves to prevent a further descent into the intra-European conflict.

As the debate around a possible Brexit intensifies, it seems to focus more and more on the economic costs and economic benefits of free movement. This discussion typically focuses on securing access to the internal market for UK businesses, to skills that the UK can ‘import’ from other Member States, but also to possible costs in terms of social benefits. to which foreign workers become eligible. Much has already been said about these arguments. The aim of this article is to emphasize that free movement also has an important non-economic aspect. It is, for better or for worse, freedom. Missing this element means ignoring what many European actors, national politicians and European citizens (and in particular its younger generations) see as the core of the integration process. It also means that any reformulation of the rules and conditions for free movement is deeply problematic, as many actors involved in such reformulation simply do not see it as a matter of costs or economic benefits. They see free movement as a symbol of European integration.

This uneconomic element of free movement can be explained in different ways. For many young European citizens (depending on when their home country joined the EU), a Europe of free movement is simply a given. All elements of their daily life are imbued with the results of free movement, whether it is their Polish classmate, their Belgian professor at the university, their favorite Italian dish, a Czech footballer in their favorite team or the Portuguese boss of the local restaurant. These little things matter: We make sense of our life and ourselves by communicating and interacting with others. The more we get used to ‘others’ being in places that we understand as familiar, local, or ‘us’; the more we take the “others” for granted. Free movement, as such, cannot be reduced to a cost / benefit analysis of an accountant. It is so much a part of our way of life that removing traces would be as if all teenagers or retirees were banned from our neighborhoods.

Freedom of action

For the individual European citizen, free movement is also more than an economic idea. It’s about being able to get the most out of your life that you can get ‘at home’. It’s an idea that allows 761,000 Britons to live in sunny Spain instead of the UK. It is the idea that allows students to learn about other cultures, allows citizens to settle in Warsaw, Marseille or Berlin for love, work, learn a language, master a culinary tradition, open a bar. in Croatia or Estonia, decide for themselves what they think is most important in their life and act accordingly. This more ambitious dimension of free movement essentially concerns freedom. It is the inability of states to decide what life their citizens should lead.

If you are a same-sex couple living in a Member State which is illiberal and does not (legally) recognize or respect (socially) your way of life, free movement allows you to move to a Member State where these prejudices do not exist. not and where you can live a better life. If you are retired and your favorite hobby is hiking, free movement allows you to move from Amsterdam to the Pyrenees. The absence of obstacles to movement, as guaranteed by the provisions on free movement, is crucial to facilitate this ambitious quality. The wealthiest Europeans will find it easy to move to other states, even in the absence of free movement. But if free movement is to be a question of freedom, of pursuing one’s aspirations, it must be freely accessible to all.

Freedom of movement… the Pyrenees. Photo: Urish via a Creative Commons 2.0 license

The last way to consider free movement from a non-economic perspective is to consider it as the guarantor of the very purpose of European construction, which is to prevent authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Much of the post-war political project of European economic integration was not primarily used for economic purposes. It was mainly a question of limiting the capacity of nation-states to commit suicide democratically and to impose the processes of internal exclusion or external aggression that accompanied it. The legally guaranteed right to free movement of citizens, but also of goods, services and businesses, and the right to non-discrimination that accompanies such movement, therefore serves to paralyze the ability of national political actors to make political decisions. stranger a scapegoat, to deny their access or the rights they have acquired. In many mainland European political cultures this argument still holds sway. For many countries, indeed, EU membership immediately followed a period of war, political oppression or totalitarianism. The inability of states to restrict the choices of their citizens – through their legally protected right to free movement, which member states cannot deny – is, from this point of view, both the most important achievement and the most important achievement. central philosophical principle of the integration process.

Free movement is about the economy. It is about the movement of workers, workers’ contributions to host societies and their demands for welfare. But to focus only on this economic element of free movement is to miss the big picture. Free movement is a symbol – for corporations, individuals and politicians. To miss this symbolic element is to underestimate the desire and the will of Cameron’s counterparts to defend it as the most fundamental element of the European integration process.

This blog represents the views of the author and not those of the BrexitVote blog, nor of the LSE.

Floris de Witte is assistant professor of law at the LSE. His research focuses on the interplay between EU law and political theory, with a particular focus on free movement, the euro crisis and the role of the individual in the EU.

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