Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, its reverberations are still being felt throughout the world. GDP in many wealthy countries remains well below its pre-crisis peak, and in Europe the global financial crisis has morphed into the Euro crisis.
The downturn has been most pronounced along Europe’s southern coast, as countries wrestle with record unemployment rates, drastically reduced social services, and severe fiscal dislocation. Anti-government protests in southern Europe responding to the austerity measures imposed by the troika – the European Commission, the International Fund and the European Central Bank – have highlighted the deteriorating economic situation in the Mediterranean and underscored disparities in labor markets between core euro zone countries (e.g. Germany and Austria), and the periphery (e.g. Spain and Greece). However, the fiscal contagion has not been confined to the edges of the Europe.
Indeed, the financial fallout in northern Europe has given rise to political turmoil there, too, and far-right parties have gained popular support by espousing anti-immigrant sentiments and promising to staunch the flow of migrant workers across their borders. As anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties have increased in popularity, heated rhetoric previously reserved for non-European immigrants is now directed at legal migrants from within the EU. As a result, one of the EU’s most cherished founding ideas – the right to migrate to live and work throughout the EU- is coming under greater scrutiny.
Take the Netherlands. Many Dutch are concerned that their country will be flooded by poor migrants who will, in turn, undercut wages by working for less pay and exploit welfare systems — concerns the deputy prime minister, Lodewijk Asscher, worries will “fuel xenophobia.” When times are tough, it is expected that the presence of “foreigners” will cause resentment, especially among lower earners. But the issue of migration has become an even thornier political matter in Amsterdam since the emergence of the far-right Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders. Mr. Wilders’ party is currently leading in the polls thanks in large part to his calls to form an anti-EU bloc in the European Parliament elections this fall.
Mr. Wilders has taken advantage of rising Dutch anger with the euro crisis, and the concomitant response to the influx of non-Dutch into the country, in order to stoke Euroscepticism in his country. And with the Netherlands’ unemployment rate hovering around 9% and its economy in a second year of a recession, many Dutch have grown increasingly sympathetic to his calls to exit the euro. This is a troubling development in a country that was one of the founding members of the EU.
But will the Freedom Party and its analogs in other European countries, such as the National Front in France, the Lega Nord in Italy and the UK Independence Party in Britain, prove capable of restricting legal migration within the EU by exiting the EU or otherwise? Unlikely. Although the interior ministers of Germany, Austria, Britain and the Netherlands urged the European Commission (the body that proposes legislative changes to EU regulations) to tighten the rules governing the movement of workers, they were unable to offer any proof to substantiate their claims of the “significant additional costs” created by migrants in their countries.
And Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, responded to the interior ministers’ plea by stating that they needed to stop “populist scaremongering.” In the event the Commission did successfully pass legislation to limit intra-EU migration, the European Parliament would more than likely block any change by wielding its veto power.
In addition, there does not seem to be agreement amongst a majority of European governments about the need to get tough on migration. In France, President François Hollande has not continued Nicolas Sarkozy’s hard stance on migration, and in Germany worries about the country’s declining birthrate and its future implications on growth made migration a non-issue in the general-election campaign. Moreover, governments in Athens, Madrid and Lisbon have little desire to impede their citizens’ movement across borders, which would cut off a vital source of remittances keeping thousands of families financially solvent.
What is more, Bulgaria and Romania, the two poorest countries in the EU, have been trying for years to gain access to the EU’s passport free Schengen zone and seem likely to do so by the end of this year or mid-2014, at the latest. Accordingly, blocking legal migration from these two countries, as well as other recent members such as Croatia, would only serve to reinforce the perception of unfairness that undermines broad support for the EU.
The four interior ministers were right to highlight that freedom of movement within the EU does not come without conditions, and governments should voice concerns when migrants strain resources - including public services. That being said, workers moving legally from one member state to another to find employment is one of the core principles of the EU and is precisely how the EU is intended to function. While much attention is given to the drawbacks of migration, in fact the re-allocation of workers has enormous benefits for receiving countries, as hard-working laborers contribute to slumping governments’ coffers by paying taxes, starting businesses and filling shortages in the labor market.
One should not be confined to one’s country of birth in the effort to build a better life, and though member states should express concerns, hopefully countervailing voices will help inform this dialogue.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy Blogs.