Full opening of labour markets for citizens from Romania and Bulgaria stirred again a discussion on merits of migration. That could have been expected – similar thing happened in 2004 and 2007 when CEE countries entered the EU, and around May 2011, when transitional arrangements on free movement of labour expired for 2004 entrants. However, growing antipathy against “foreigners” could be hardly considered a momentary phenomenon in today´s Europe. Free movement of persons, one of the EU´s four fundamental freedoms, is under increasing pressure.
Since January 1st, Bulgarians and Romanians could freely and legally work in any EU country. At least, formally so. Seven-year long transitional period, used till the very end by nine countries, is over. However, some of the “old” members try to make sure that “free movement” does not have to be so free, after all. In the UK Prime Minister Cameron rushed through measures that limit access to social benefits for migrants from other EU countries. In Netherlands a report commissioned by the government and published at the beginning of January showed that sixty percent of Dutch believe that immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania would abuse the social system and get involved in crime. Some concrete steps from government could now be expected, especially as it is put on the defensive by Gert Wilders´s vitric campaign. French is taking a hard line on this issue already for some time, and the new German government created a special panel of state secretaries, which will look on possible misuse of social benefits by work migrants.
Now, all these mainstream politicians could argue that they want to forestall political radicals, who would misuse public fears. However that does not change anything on a disturbing fact that one of the four fundamental freedoms of the EU is being questioned. At times, when a large part of society endures increasing social hardship, and social security is being diminished, “foreigners” tend to be first victims. Or scapegoats.
Now, changing the European legislation guaranteeing free movement of workers would be difficult, as all member states would need to agree. But that is not necessary. More likely we would witness a gradual retrenchment of migrants´ access to social services and benefits. Some countries, like the UK had already taken these steps, others, like Germany, are debating it. The new re-defined “freedom of movement of persons” would read: “you are free to come, you could work here, but don´t expect the same treatment, equal rights, as “our people”.” At times when we are told to see a slacker misusing a social system in every poor or unemployed person, measures inspired by victimisation of poverty combined with xenophobia would enjoy a wide popularity.
Now, let´s put aside a difficult question of the real losers and winners in the work migration game. It is highly complex and does not need to be debated here. Let´s perceive this issue purely from the point of view of citizens´ rights: In the midst of the European integration project, built on a gradual dismantling of borders, new borders are being created that would separate “us” (defined from an old, national perspective) and “them”. They would separate “our people”, who might deserve our solidarity, and the “others”, who should be viewed with suspicion. Recent discussion on limiting the work migrants´ access to social benefits and services is another manifestation of the crisis of European societies. We have resigned on an ideal of wide social justice. Instead, we are fighting over a distribution of remaining bits to an ever narrower group of people.
Well, as Rammstein signs with an irony in one of its songs: “Wohin gehst du, hier ist nichts mehr frei. Das ist mein Land. “