Freedom of movement: Non-negotiable

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

If the EU is still more about people than trade, then freedom of movement of people must remain an ever-constant principle. [Shutterstock]

The Bratislava summit yielded very little in tangible results. As the EU struggles to deal with pressures from all directions, freedom of movement of people, one of the four pillars, has come under scrutiny. Ulrike Guérot asks if the EU is still for people or merely for trade.

Dr Ulrike Guérot is founder and director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin.

The situation seems messy, the Brits do not seem to know how to handle it, various proposals are circulating and talk abounds about a two-speed Europe. Other countries (Poland or Hungary) seem eager to follow the British example and leave the EU anyway, whereas some want to exclude precisely these countries from the EU, as Luxembourg’s foreign minister signalled recently with respect to Hungary. European unity seems to be a rare good these days at the European table.

Germany and France want a defence union and security, Greece and Italy focus first and foremost on unemployment and increased public spending, the Visegrád group calls for amendments to the Lisbon Treaty.

Is the EU still able to come up with solutions for its innumerable problems? Nothing has ever been as unclear as Europe’s future. Much is at stake, but the hope for game-changing solutions through a Council meeting is small. What we are experiencing in front of our eyes is the unravelling of the EU and it goes faster than many would have thought a couple of month ago.

One – pretty disputed, but influential  – paper that currently tries to provide a road map for the Brexit negotiations is a paper from the Brussels think tank Breugel arguing for a Continental Partnership (CP), which would essentially create an inner circle of more or less politically integrated countries in Europe.

It would also create an outer circle of countries which could include beyond the UK also countries such as Turkey or Ukraine and which would keep the single market, meaning the free movement of goods, capital and services, but not more. In other words, free movement of persons, one of the four freedoms of the EU, would get disentangled.

Open borders for markets, but not for citizens is the concept. The Brits call it a “nearby” solution: stay as close as possible to the EU, without commitment. The idea may seduce others soon. Top of the list are the Hungarians, the Czechs or the Poles. Who can be sure that the French or the Danish would not find such a deal seductive?

And who would then be left in the inner circle, if any? Jacques Delors once said you cannot fall in love with a single market.

One needs to take a breath when reading the Breugel paper. One may start to ask whether that is what the people who tore down the toll bars in 1950 had in mind. One may wonder whether the narrative of the EU as the world’s most convincing and most successful peace project – it earned the Nobel Prize for it – should be reduced to keep markets intact. Is it for people or trade?

If there is one lesson from the years of the euro crisis, then perhaps it is that the EU should care for its citizens and their rights, especially for their social rights, but also, for example, their right to outvote a parliament. It is precisely because the EU placed banks before citizens that it fostered populism, which then led to Brexit, among other populisms. A “markets-logic only” does thus not seem to be an appropriate answer to the very fact that citizens have been forgotten in the EU.

Considering all this, one comes to think that this proposal is the perversion of the European idea, which is to unite European citizens. They are the betrayed now: the millions of Polish workers who have settled down in Great Britain and who have taken life decisions based on the promise of free movement of people.

The thousands of British professors, who currently do not know whether they can continue their research projects or keep their assistants, largely funded by EU money (the Breugel paper considers the chapter on research not “essential”).

The millions of students in London who enjoy studying at LSE. The millions of Brits who live abroad and are now desperately trying to get the passport from another EU country, Ireland, France or Germany, wherever they have family ties and settled down, for a job, an internship, love. What about all of them, if free movement is now sold for cheap? Their dreams will be dashed.

If there is one problem now, then it is the question of European citizenship, promised by the way in the Maastricht treaty – which pretends to constitute a Union of states and a Union of citizens – but cheated on the latter. European citizenship is only an indirect one. It is linked to the nation state belonging (or not) to the EU, so if the UK leaves, the Brits get rid of it.

Battles are not won by pack paddling. They are won en avant, as one never goes back in history. The history of the European project was about one market, which was turned into one currency. The market and the currency need now to be completed by one European democracy  – if we do not want to give up the two.

Allowing a European market and a European currency without European democracy in which both are embedded will ultimately lead to the loss of freedom in Europe. The loss of free movement of persons may only be the first step here.

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