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EU freedom of movement. This actually matters.

blogging-laptopHere I sit writing this blog entry on a Sunday night in Berlin. The Kreuzberg streets outside my window are quiet now; earlier today they were thronged with people in the January sun. I do not know where those people were from who were passing outside my window – Berlin, Germany, who knows where else. But those were my people. This is my city.

I do not altogether know why I feel at home here, but I do. And I know that better than any bureaucrat who would have to make a judgment on a visa or a work permit ever will. I am an EU migrant. I am not a scrounger, I am not living off the German state, yet conversely I am not a mega-rich investor either. I am a reasonably qualified, reasonably earning, reasonably living person wanting to find their way in life like anyone else. Only I want to do that in Berlin, rather than the UK. I am also not a classical ‘expat’ either – I speak German, I work in German, and I even have a Haftpflichtversicherung and I care about Datenschutz.

But I hold a British passport having been born in Newport in South Wales, and yet thanks to perhaps the most extraordinary thing the EU has done I have the right to be here in Berlin. It is not only goods, services and capital that can cross EU borders, but ordinary people too, free to pursue their goals and their dreams across more or less a whole continent. That’s an extraordinary and beautiful thing.

So when any politician or any colour or any nationality attacks freedom of movement it hurts. It hurts me, and it should hurt every single one of us 2.2 million holders of UK passports who live in other countries in the EU. Each and every one of us would have to go and prove to someone in some government office somewhere that we are allowed to stay where we actually want to be. To prove we are allowed to stay where we’ve invested our time, our futures, whatever those may be. Where we can be artists, or pensioners enjoying our retirements, or students, or freelancers, or bankers, whatever we want, and that is our choice.

That is my story. That is EU freedom of movement. This stuff actually matters.


10 Comments

  • Martin Holterman |

    Ah, but free movement of what? You’re established in Germany, and I’m a Dutchman working in the UK. However much we talk about the free movement of persons, there is actually no such thing. There are the Four Freedoms, and there are rights under secondary law that are ancillary to the Four Freedoms.

    And being centre-left, you should be careful what you wish for. If European citizens truly felt free to move anywhere without worrying about where their livelihood would come from, or rather if they assumed that their host state would pay them benefits the same way their home state does, that would fatally undermine the financeability and perceived legitimacy of the European welfare state. I’m fine with that; I like my welfare state fairly minimal. But if memory serves you do not.

  • Martin Keegan |

    The other Martin beat me to it: there’s free movement of labour, not of people.

    If you want a welfare state, it needs to have the same political-geographic scope as the labour market; this is why people moving between parishes was so controversial (and why we had forged paupers’ passports and so on) centuries ago. There is no democratic legitimacy for the transfer payments necessary for a trans-European welfare state, so either people change their minds about what the relevant demos is (unlikely to happen), governments revert to rule by force (unlikely), or the labour mobility territory gets adjusted to the welfare mobility territory.

  • Jon |

    Both of you are sensible enough to see the macro numbers rather than getting stuck with the scare stories.

    The cost for an individual to move is always going to be considerable, and – in the absence of an EU-wide welfare state – some sort of reasonable possibility of employment, or some financial means to live from, and the prospect of genuinely becoming a ‘local’ with full rights and responsibilities after a certain period of time must be the aim.

    We cannot clearly calculate the contribution and receipts of an individual to and from an individual welfare state, and neither could we try to work out transfers in that way within the EU. Moving across borders is always going to have an associated economic cost to the individual, and the aggregate numbers demonstrate the benefits are positive even for countries that receive more migrants than they send out. So what’s the problem exactly?

  • Martin Keegan |

    “the prospect of genuinely becoming a ‘local’ with full rights and responsibilities after a certain period of time must be the aim”. Try telling that to the Emir of Dubai!

  • Ralf Grahn |

    @Martin Keegan, I didn’t know Dubai was part of the European Union, or even on the accession path.

    Free movement (the four freedoms) may have started from narrowly defined labour, but the aim of the internal market freedom concerns “persons”.

    ‘Ever closer union’ describes the process of lowering borders for free movement, nowadays based primarily on EU citizenship. Despite language barriers the evident aim is to make it as easy to move from one EU member state to another as between states of the USA, but already some 14 million EU citizens reside in another EU country than their state of origin.

    Naturally, taxes and benefits need to be balanced for the individual in a just manner, but the coordination of social systems is still rudimentary.

  • Carmela Asero |

    I don’t want to exploit any member state for benefits. But I don’t want any member state exploit me and the money I have generated. In absence of an EU-wide state welfare state, I’d like at least to be able to opt for a sovranational scheme like the one the EU officials have, in which I can aggregate all contributions of my years of work in different countries and move freely around enjoying benefits I have maturated with my work and effort, paying for my health bills wherever I want to get cured and get my pension or unemployment benefit to the bank account of my choice.
    The Dutch state is keeping the money of my contributions even if I worked there for one year and I left the country months ago. I did not have old parents living there. No children using Dutch schools.But I paid as any other Dutch tax payer. I won’t claim anything in future to Dutch state if they give me my money now and I can place it in a EU-wide recognised welfare scheme or private insurance of my choice. I left Netherlands and I am still receving emails by my Dutch employer about changed and tightened new rules in force since 1st Jan 2014 about pension. Will I have to monitor with fear at changing rules in NL, IT and BE and other countries EU country I will work in for rest of my life? NO THANKS!
    But for certain hypocrit head of governments, to allow that would mean losing money of the vast majority of healthy and hard working EU citizens generating wealth in their countries, thus losing power for own circle and political clients as well, while they bother with the ‘fear generating’ stupid stories, statistically insignificant, of benefit chasing EU migrants. And that’s all folks.

  • Martin Holterman |

    @Jon: It doesn’t cost that much to live just across the border in Germany or Belgium instead of in the Netherlands. (Just like it doesn’t cost that much to get your petrol there.) But it looks like we don’t really disagree.

    As for macro numbers, that’s another connection: in order to make the Euro work, we need significant transfer payments (gifts, not loans). But that’s a distinct question from free movement. (In fact, from a macroeconomics point of view, the two are substitutes.) In a Twitter discussion last month, I proposed a common pot to pay European (unemployment) benefits from: everyone pays in or takes out based on how their economy/labour market is doing. That pot can be as big or as small as politically feasible, although from a monetary/macro-economics point of view, you’d want it pretty big.

    (For example, the Eurozone GDP is about € 10 trillion. So let’s have everyone pay 1% of their GDP into the pot each year, and then take out a share equal to their number of unemployed divided by the total number of unemployed in the Eurozone. The amount each country takes out will be insufficient to pay their unemployment benefits, but that’s OK, they’ll cover the rest – however much they choose to make it – from national funds. That way everyone can have the level of benefits they like, and there’s still Eurozone level risk-sharing and transfer payments.)

    However, none of that changes the fact that there is no free movement of persons in the general sense. See, for example, the judgement from October in Alokpa et al., where the children, who were French citizens, had to go back to France with their 3rd country national mother because they did not have any income in Luxembourg: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:62012CJ0086:EN:HTML

  • Hugh BS |

    Though I could be considered an expat in Brussels, where I have lived for 10 years, in that case I’m an expat from France, where I was certainly a migrant for my seventeen-year stay. Jon’s description of moving to Berlin resonates warmly with my experience there, though I did know a number of people then who had migrated before the UK joined the EU. This is so long ago that France still had capital controls – as I found out trying to repay a small loan from my parents in 1987 or thereabouts.
    The progression towards full free movement of “persons” is inevitably subject to resistance everywhere in current circumstances, but the depth of reaction of my island nation is not just xenophobia. The doctor who originally wrote passionately about NHS tourism emphasised the issue of Brits returning from abroad for treatment. UK universal benefits are different and perceived (I imagine – been away too long) very differently from the contributory schemes I have experience of on the continent.

    If, as I believe, the benefits issue is blown out of all proportion, that applies to both sides. Viviane Reding saying it is up to Brits to change their system to suit freedom of movement is no doubt seen as akin to her suggesting the UK stop driving on the left. But I’m beginning to suspect she actually wants to push the UK out…

  • Andrew Turvey |

    But you must see, surely, that there is a significant difference an exchange of nationals between Britain and Germany, who are paid largely the same, and the one-way travel of large numbers of people from poorer countries like Romania, Albania and Turkey towards richer countries like Germany, Netherlands and Britain?

    Although unpopular in Europe, I do think the restrictions that Cameron proposes for new accession countries, in place until you have an equalisation of per-capita income, do make some sense.

  • Martin Keegan |

    @Andrew Turvey, your equalisation hasn’t happened in 1000 years. There’s a path-dependent clustering around the Blue Banana, that isn’t going to change quickly. Ergo, the restrictions, if justified on grounds of differences of income, will last indefinitely.

    I dispute the premise though: you can get further ahead in countries with greater inequality, so even if average incomes converge within the EU, more unequal countries like the UK will continue to attract greater numbers of migrants. In the UK, a lot of the debate focuses on pull factors (supposedly welfare and jobs), but the role of inequality and social mobility as a pull factor is often ignored.

    I expect EU member states eventually to replace the current racially discriminatory system (free movement of labour for the largely white EU member state citizens – it is no coincidence that the BNP is in favour of this while UKIP is against) with a less irrational system of discrimination on productivity rather than nationality.

So, what do you think ?