Migration and the slippery slope of EU citizenship

Pavel Kogut

What will it be worth in the future? Photo source.

Amid concerns over Europe’s waning magnetism and clout, precipitated not least by the travails of the Eurozone, and its declining competitiveness vis-à-vis Asia and the US, there are still signs of its allure retaining some of the former shine, within and without. Next year Latvians will bid farewell to the national currency. Croatians are soon to surrender some of their hard-won sovereignty to Brussels. Former Yugoslav republics go out of their way to impress EU leaders with their commitment to European integration.

Immigrants too are a constant reminder of the continent’s popularity. However, by maintaining Europe’s status as a popular destination they have succeeded more in damaging than improving their overall reputation. Media hysteria, coupled with the rise of far-right parties as well as anti-immigration political narrative, has gone some way toward shifting the focus of public attention from immigrants’ contributions to to their abuses of social security system, from their status as rights-holders to duty-bearers and essentially from who they are to where they come from.

Not wanted and seldom welcomed, third country national’s (TCNs) are nevertheless needed to offset Europe’s demographic deficit, characterised by insufficiently high fertility, decreasing mortality and rising life expectancy. Implications of ageing population for the sustainability of health care and social security systems and the economy at large are a headache for policy makers of all stripes and at all levels. Concerns over how best to tackle these challenges will feed the need for strategic reassessment of economic, social and immigration policies, leading nation states to claim more power and room for manoeuvre.

Notwithstanding research findings that show positive, but small, contribution of immigration to public finances and to social fabric in general, managing labour migration from outside the EU has remained a ring-fenced national competence as evidenced by the right of member states to determine volumes of TCNs entering their territories for economic purposes. Furthermore, internal migration regime, underpinned by the right to free movement and stoked by the dynamics of East-West migration following the 2004 enlargement, has had a direct bearing on entry options for TCNs, especially those seeking employment in low wage sectors.

The preferential treatment given to EU nationals as a default option for meeting labour market needs within the union, the greater number of shortage occupations available to Bulgarians and Romanians than to TCNs in the case of France (no longer reeling from the Polish plumber phenomenon?), the drop in the number of work permits for TCNs and almost a two-fold increase in the number of EU nationals on the UK labour market – all suggest that internal migration regime, at least in the case of two former colonial powers, is being used to regulate the flow of non-Europeans into low-skilled job markets.

Despite being a solution to filling 3D jobs and an opportunity for some countries to undermine post-colonial labour ties, intra-EU migration has become a source of considerable anxiety for member states that received a disproportionate share of workers from the post-communist republics. The concern was clearly expressed last April when interior ministers of Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK drafted a joint letter to the Irish Presidency, saying that ‘immigrants [from other member states]’ avail of the right to free movement without ‘fulfilling the requirements for exercising this right.’

In making an argument for beefing up powers to fight ‘abuse and fraud’ – more specifically, to impose re-entry bans on those who have been found guilty of document forgery, marriages of convenience and systematic abuse of social security systems – that freedom of movement has ostensibly been conducive to, ministers drew on EU legislation, notably Directive 2004/38/EC, to highlight conditions under which a fundamental freedom underpinning EU citizenship should be curtailed.

The letter is timely given Lithuania’s upcoming EU Presidency – ministers actually called upon ‘the member states of origin’ to improve social conditions ‘of those concerned’ with a view to minimising flows of East-West migration and ultimately welfare tourism – the expiry of transitional provisions for Bulgarians and Romanians next year and the sixth enlargement due to take place in July – it should also come as no surprise that the same four countries have announced their decisions to impose restrictions on Croatian workers.

While labour market restrictions of up to seven years, applicable to new EU citizens, and a conditionality not to become an unreasonable burden regulating free movers are perfectly in line with supranational legislation, and while an argument for erecting temporary barriers can be substantiated, however tenuously, by sovereignty claims and in-group favouritism, the rhetoric that likens EU citizens to TCNs (e.g. ‘immigrants from other  member states;’ ‘member states of origin’) and a proposal to adopt similar measures against EU citizens as currently applicable to illegally staying TCNs is worrying, to say the least.

Populist rhetoric that labels free movers as ‘certain immigrants from other member states’ is particularly damaging to the principle of solidarity that the EU has been trying to promote with varying degrees of success. An on-going tussle between the Commission and the UK over access to social security benefits – the latter was recently referred to the European Court of Justice for discriminating against EU nationals in deciding whether or not non-British EU nationals resident in the UK are eligible for certain welfare benefits – is a disquieting reminder about considerable hurdles in EU Social Security Coordination, so are infringement procedures started against Finland for disregarding periods of employment or self-employment in other member states in determining migrant workers’ entitlements to unemployment benefits and against Spain for failing to recognise the European Health Insurance Card.

It is questionable whether a union in which free movement is perceived as being subject to too many conditions and restrictions and where supranational citizenship is not a distinguishing feature of ‘insiders’ can enjoy and survive without public support. At the same time, as EU’s dependence on external migration grows, the convergence of rights and statuses of all EU residents looks inevitable. Keeping its own demos happy and equal while ensuring the integration of TCNs is a tough call for European leaders, one they’d better get right.

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