EU’s free movement: Like the air that we breathe?

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

The exercise of the right to freedom of movement is not as evident as "the air that we breathe". EU citizens should be reminded of this, so they vote next May to firmly defend this crucial milestone in the European construction, António Vitorino and Yves Bertoncini write.

António Vitorino is president and Yves Bertoncini director of Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute, the EU think tank based in Paris. Vitorino is also former European Commissioner for justice and home affairs.

"The right to complete freedom of movement granted to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens at the beginning of 2014 has sparked a debate which we need to address in both a realistic and a pro-active manner on the basis of three sets of messages.

There is first a need to recall that the right to freedom of movement enjoyed by the citizens of the EU makes a clear distinction between them and non-EU citizens, many of whom require visas to travel to the EU and cannot settle without a work permit or a residence permit. This right is extremely concrete and highly symbolic, at the same time it is one of the hallmarks of membership of the EU for its citizens, especially for the younger members who consider exercising it to be as natural as "the air that they breathe".

This right to freedom of movement, however, should not be confused with a right to unconditional freedom of settlement: European citizens wishing to reside in another country for more than three months are obliged to prove they have sufficient resources to do so, otherwise they have no choice but to return to their country of origin, even to the point of being expelled if necessary. And the same applies to access to national social security systems, which is possible only on condition that it does not place an excessive burden on the host country, including in the case of long duration unemployment.

Moreover, the EU's member states have the option of obliging new member states to wait for seven years after joining before granting their citizens full right to freedom of movement. They can apply certain safeguard clauses to restrict people's exercise of the right of access to the labour market in particularly tense sectors of the economy. They can also regulate access to non-contributory social services (such as universal health cover).

Membership of the Schengen area allows people to travel without having to put up with waiting in the kind of long queues at borders that they have to endure, on the other hand, when travelling to or from Bulgaria, Romania, Ireland and the UK. But "Safeguard clauses" can also be applied, in order to temporarily re-establish physical control at the EU's internal borders. No study has ever clearly established the effectiveness of stable border checkpoints in the struggle against crime compared to the mobile spot checks conducted in all the EU countries…

The second message to be sent is that the right to settle is exercised in a manner that is both limited and profitable for host countries

EU member states' populations comprised an average of 2.6% of European residents in 2012, compared to 1.3% in 2003. The proportion ranged from 0.1% in Poland to 38% in Luxembourg. Almost two-thirds of these European residents were workers, while other major categories included pensioners, followed by students; the remaining categories consisted of a minority of unemployed workers and non-active members of resident families (primarily children and women homemakers).

Available studies underline that the presence of these European residents has had a positive overall impact on growth and employment in their host countries. Similarly, reports on these residents' impact on national social security systems show that it is either neutral or positive. This, because given that a majority of these foreign residents are workers, they make a substantial contribution to the social security system, while benefiting less from it than the local population (they tend to be younger than the average age of the population as a whole).

The third key message is that, while its exercise may indeed cause problems, the right to freedom of movement nevertheless is often used as a scapegoat.

The decisions recently adopted to provide a better framework for worker posting – a system which businesses have been using in an absolutely deplorable fashion – show that it is possible to address those problems. And the same must apply for abuse of access to social services, first and foremost on the part of nationals. Yet using the excuse that the right to freedom of movement is occasionally misused in order to call it into question would penalise the large majority of European citizens who benefit from it every day…

The real question is then: does the root cause of the economic and social problems experienced by the EU countries really lies in the exercise of the right to freedom of movement? Does the crisis currently affecting the UK not have more to with the havoc caused by "mad" unbridled finance rather than with the extremely hypothetical arrival of a few hundred Romanians? Can France's structural difficulties truly be blamed on the presence in the country of a few thousand Roma people? Might we not shift the debate on the EU towards other more substantial challenges, such as an ageing population, debt sustainability or weak growth prospects?

"The air that we breathe" in Europe today is all the more polluted by the crisis that is causing problems for government parties eager to withstand the pressure of the "populist" forces using freedom of movement as a convenient scapegoat. One of the important issues in the European elections will then be to find out whether those parties are going to embrace populist diatribe (the way Tories have been doing) or whether they are going to maintain a stance that is at once more realistic and healthier. While the government parties have never caved in over the advantages to be gained from defending the existence of the euro, they may prove far more hesitant when it comes to freedom of movement…

The exercise of the right to freedom of movement is not as natural as "the air that we breathe": this should also remind citizens eager to maintain it that they need to vote in May 2014 in such a way as to firmly defend this crucial milestone in the European construction."

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