By Alex Callinicos
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‘Free movement’ in the EU is just a myth

This article is over 8 years, 3 months old
Issue 2489
EU border controls are forcing migrants to make dangerous sea journeys
EU border controls are forcing migrants to make dangerous sea journeys (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Supporters of the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union (EU) are gearing up their efforts. The in/out referendum could come as early as June.

One of their arguments will be that the EU, as a transnational space, transcends the petty limitations imposed by nation states. It’s ironic that this is happening as such limitations—in the crudest form of border controls—are spreading like wildfire across the continent.

The 1985 Schengen Agreement was supposed to restore the Europe without passports that existed before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Now embracing 26 states —22 EU member states and four others—it scrapped border controls among participating countries.

Britain opted out, but its citizens have benefitted from the ease of movement among European states. Now this process is going into reverse.

As the refugee crisis exploded last summer, there was a division in continental Europe. Some states reacted by taking extraordinary measures to block their borders by erecting fences and the like—notably Hungary. Others initially welcomed the refugees—for example, Germany and Sweden.

No longer. In early January the Swedish government imposed new border controls with Denmark, ending 50 years of free movement between the two countries.

There are now passport checks on the magnificent Oresund bridge at the mouth of the Baltic connecting Copenhagen and Malmo, famous from TV series The Bridge.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is the architect of the policy of welcoming the refugees in. She is now under very heavy political fire from within her own Christian Democratic Union and its more reactionary Bavarian partner the Christian Social Union.

The German government, a coalition with the Social Democratic Party, is pledging to deport “secondary refugees”—those who entered elsewhere in the EU.

This distinction is crucial to the EU border control system, since migrants are meant to stay in the member state they first entered and wait to have their right to remain determined. For people who make the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean, this means staying in countries such as Greece and Italy where unemployment is high rather than going to northern Europe, where the jobs are.


This set-up has been under pressure for years as migrants doggedly push across the borders. Now it has collapsed. The EU’s response has been characteristic—blame Greece.

The European Commission issued a report last week threatening to expel Greece from Schengen for failing to police the longest coastline in the Mediterranean. At the same time, at the demand of the EU, the Greek state continues to slash the public services needed to deal with refugees.

There’s also a plan being mooted to help Macedonia—a small and impoverished non-EU-member state to the north of Greece—to fortify its borders and prevent migrants from pressing across to the rest of Europe.

Meanwhile, the EU ponders suspending Schengen, in theory for a couple of years. These proposals go hand-in-hand with the negotiations in Brussels to allow Britain to suspend migration from within the EU as an “emergency” measure supposedly to protect its welfare system being overwhelmed.

The entire debate is an absurdity in a continent whose population is rapidly ageing and therefore needs migrants to sustain its economy. It assumes that migrants represent simply an economic cost when their labour can generate the resources to cover any extra demand they represent.

Everyone knows how dependent British hospitals are on workers from elsewhere in the EU and other parts of the world.

But ultimately the argument is about solidarity and justice not economics. Europe’s governments are running scared in the face of racists and fascists like the masked thugs who stormed through Stockholm on Friday of last week threatening “north African street-children”.

Fortunately there are two sides in this struggle. The other side is represented by the two Greek football teams who that same day sat down at the start of their match to protest at migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.

This is now the great battle of our time, and everyone has to decide which side they’re on.

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