Once upon a time it was the spectre of the “Polish plumber” that was haunting (Western) Europe. It was dreaded by the populace, whereas, in general, mainstream elites looked on benignly. The Polish plumber was enterprising, hard-working, easily satisfied, an example to spoilt and lazy Western European workers, and as such he was “sponsored” (or patronized) by the Directive on Services in the Internal Market (the so-called Bolkestein Directive).
About a decade later, the fall of the restrictions on the freedom of movement of Bulgarians and Romanians within the EU has given rise to another kind of spectre, with completely different characteristics, which is evoked in particular by the press and politicians of some countries.
It is ostensibly all about the fear that Bulgarians and Romanians – the nationals of the poorest countries in the EU – would take advantage of their newly-acquired freedom of movement to descend in droves on Britain and Germany in order to dilapidate their welfare systems through fraud and “benefit tourism”. Such claims have repeatedly proved to be wildly exaggerated. They disregard that intra-EU mobility has always been, on the whole, statistically low, that migrants are net contributors to the economy and the welfare systems of their host countries much more than they are beneficiaries, that welfare fraudsters are far more likely to be “locals” rather than migrants, or that tax evasion and social dumping turn out to be more harmful to the economy than welfare fraud itself.
In Germany, politicians like Horst Seehofer, Chairman of the CSU, and Elmar Brok, MEP for the CDU, have advocated the “expulsion” of welfare-fraudsters – i.e. a “supplementary” penalty reserved for foreigners only. In Britain shrill calls have been raised for an extension of the restrictions on the freedom of movement for Bulgarians and Romanians, for an extension of their exclusion from social benefits, for a renegotiation of the freedom of movement itself, even for its differentiation according to the GDP of the country of origin.
Labour Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna joined the chorus of those in favour of changing the principle of free movement, adding that “the fathers of the EU had in mind free movement of workers, not free movement of job seekers”. His statements have subsequently been criticized as “superfluous” by a senior Labour MP. However, the debate in Britain has an unfortunate tendency to be articulated in terms of a challenge to the supremacy of EU law, or of tug-of-war with “Brussels”: “Defiant Brussels slaps down British threats to rewrite immigration rules” was the front title of the respected and left-leaning Observer on 12th January. As if it was all up to “Brussels”.
The Historic Roots Of Free Movement
Perhaps no other bout of anti-immigration hysteria is as liable to make Europeans forget the close connection between European integration, freedom of movement (in its earlier stages primarily concerning working-class migration) and European citizenship rights. It all started at the initiative of the Italian delegation during the negotiations for the European Coal and Steel Community, which was established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951. Italy was a poor, overpopulated country, rich in unemployment, surely much worse off than present-day Bulgaria and Romania, and desperate for emigration opportunities.
Through tough negotiations, freedom of movement made its way into Article 69 of the ECSC Treaty, albeit limited to “workers […] who had recognized qualifications in a coalmining or steelmaking occupation”. Full implementation, however, was only achieved in 1957, and in the meantime workers’ mobility went on through bilateral agreements as before. In 1955 such an agreement was signed between the German and Italian governments and was accepted by the German trade unions only on condition that immigrant workers were granted the same pay and the same social rights as local workers. This rejection of social dumping as inherent to the migration experience, as had been till then, sowed the seeds for equal social citizenship – although back then, of course, Italian workers were still Gastarbeiter, temporarily leading segregated lives on the margins of German society. This is something we should all keep in mind nowadays when considering the issue of “posted workers” and of its relevant Directive.
The 1957 Treaty of Rome, which founded the EEC, consciously marked a crucial step forward. Free movement was now defined as a right (as stated in Article 48, the right to accept offers of employment and the right to move freely within the Community, and the right to reside and remain in another EEC country after being employed), which was extended to all workers, with the exception of those in the public sector. Implementation however remained slow, and was fully achieved only in 1968. At the same time, Regulation 1612/68 banned all discrimination between workers of member states on the ground of nationality, and established the right to the same social and tax benefits as local workers. Family members of migrant workers were allowed to reside and work in the host country too. Last but not least, being unemployed could not in itself justify expulsion. All this took place years before the UK joined the EEC in 1973.
To be sure, the Treaty of Rome provided for the rights of workers, i.e. economic actors, and not yet for the rights of persons or citizens. However, the very provisions for family reunification brought a new dimension to the notion of free movement. It was not only young, healthy, mostly male workers that moved to other Community countries on a temporary basis, but children, teenagers, elderly people, more women, who might choose to settle permanently in the host country. New issues were thus brought to the fore which went in themselves well beyond the sphere of the economically active worker: housing, education, unemployment, sickness, and so on.
Over the next decades the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice was instrumental in developing a citizenship dimension to free movement and in promoting integration in all spheres of society. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s freedom of movement and of residence was extended to the self-employed and seasonal workers; in the 1990s, in the wake of the 1986 Single European Act, it was explicitly granted to non-economically active persons (like students, pensioners and the unemployed) and their families. The next step was the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which, as is known, introduced the concept of European citizenship, also including some voting rights. At present, the most comprehensive document affirming free movement as citizenship right is Directive 2004/38/EC, which, among other things, makes provisions for access to welfare and prescribes the way in which expulsions of EU citizens can be effected (not as often or as easily as some politicians or newspaper editors would wish).
Thus the principle of free movement of people has been the bedrock not only European citizenship rights have developed on, but also the European construction itself is grounded in. Of course, you conceive free movement as a principle and as a right (i.e. not as an agreement for mutual advantage to be called off when it is no longer convenient, and not as a mere tool to ensure the efficiency of a single market, either) if you are willing to break with views of state sovereignty and of citizen and foreigner, and are willing to build up a new social and political community. So were the people who brought the European construction into being.
Already in 1961 Commissioner Lionello Levi Sandri felt that
the [migrant] worker must everywhere feel his European citizenship to be a source of strength and pride. For this […] will be the most important political and social result of the liberalization of the labour market: to the extent to which it is attained, we shall all be made to appreciate the effective range of European solidarity and the progress of the idea of unity.
A few years later the first President of the European Commission, Walter Hallstein, called the achievement of free movement one of “the most spectacular points in the programme which is to lead to the integration of Europe”, one that allowed the Community “to claim the right to call itself the ‘European Economic and Social Community’”. And he wondered: “The consequences in terms of constitutional policy are incalculable. Do they point to the beginning of a common European ‘citizenship’ [“Indigenat”]?” (By the way, this is what “the fathers of the EU” actually said).
Again, it is worth repeating that the “agents” of this new concept of “European citizenship” or “European solidarity” were mostly working-class people, hardly the categories of migrants we generally now like to associate free movement with: students, professionals, academics, Northern Europeans spending their years of retirement in warmer countries, the highly-skilled workers European governments would want to limit free movement to, and so on. And the working-class condition is certainly a good vantage point to consider the scope and impact of rights.
Now it would be all too easy to shrug off this spectre of gallivanting welfare-fraudsters – if freedom of movement is inscribed in the Treaties, changing which would require a practically impossible unanimity with 28 member states, isn’t all this blustering simply idle talk? In fact, continually contrasting “the (national) people” and “Brussels”, calling for changes and measures which simply cannot be effected, may well bring about a general belittlement of freedom of movement and European citizenship rights in themselves. A restriction of their interpretation is already coming into being now, at least in the perception of public opinion, when it is felt that they must somehow be “earned”. Once again the European level is thus at risk of becoming the site where neoliberal policies and relationships are made “common sense” and ossified, even though they might get criticized at home in an inane, rhetorical exercise.
This wave of anti-immigration hysteria apparently prompted by the lifting of restrictions on the freedom of movement for Bulgarians and Romanians is just another chapter of the longstanding war against the poor. Those who do not wish to see the European project reduced to neoliberal waste should be aware of that and act accordingly. They should defend the core principles of European citizenship rights as the birthright of EU citizens. They should assert the principle of equal pay for equal work everywhere in the EU and set their faces against all measures liable to promote social dumping. They should fight against inequalities and imbalances within the EU and tackle the present crisis as a European matter, without yielding to the temptation to believe a “national” solution is possible or desirable.
They should formulate European redistributive anti-cyclical policies (for example, a new European Citizens’ Initiative for employment and sustainable development has recently been presented to the European Commission). They should seriously consider the implications of a European social citizenship, and what steps are to be taken to develop it. Finally, they should lay the groundwork for the extension of European citizenship rights to third-country nationals who are legally resident in the EU, thus remedying situations of injustice and discrimination which have already been long denounced. The European elections are coming up, and these issues should be a matter for debate. The time is now.
Willem Maas, Creating European Citizens, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007
Ettore Recchi & Adrian Favell (eds.), Pioneers of European Integration. Citizenship and Mobility in the EU, Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2009
Lars Magnusson & Bo Stråth (eds.), A European Social Citizenship? Preconditions for Future Policies from a Historical Perspective, Bruxelles: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2004