Thursday, 14 July 2011

Closing Europe's Borders

The European Union has been built upon the free movement of capital, goods and people between the member states. However, recently, the ideal of European unity has come under threat, predominantly through the richer states seeking to impose new restrictions on the movement of people within the EU.

During the transition from Communism - when the Central Eastern European (CEE) markets were opened up to the Western European economies - a major incentive for the region's populations was the prospect of joining an enlarged EU. Being able to move, live and work freely in the EU was a strong motivational pull for the populations of CEE and was regarded as an historical gain in the region.

Even although the CEE markets had long been opened up to goods and capital from the West, most of the Western European states retained restrictions upon people from CEE working in their countries after EU enlargement. It was at this time that the stereotypes of the 'Polish plumber' began to be spread and it was not until May of this year - seven years after joining the EU - that the labour markets were fully opened up to the CEE countries that joined in 2004. To this day, workers from Bulgaria and Romania are unable to work legally in most EU countries, although of course capital and goods from the West can enter these countries without restriction.

A disturbing development in European politics is the trend towards introducing new restrictions on people moving and working inside the EU. Recently, the Dutch government has announced plans to deport people from CEE who are unemployed and whom it deems have little prospect of finding work. This has been accompanied by a new xenophobic offensive against people from CEE living in Holland, led the by far-right politician Geert Wilders.

The other threat to the movement of people inside the EU has come through attempts to restrict the free movement of people within the Schengen area, that encompasses 25 European (not all EU member) states. Firstly, the enlargement of the Schengen area to Bulgaria and Romania was delayed in June. Despite Bulgarian and Romania meeting the criteria for entering the Schengen area, their entry was opposed by the richer states of France, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium. One of the justifications for this decision was restricting the arrival of immigrants from North Africa coming through Bulgaria or Romania and also to prevent the movement of Roma from these countries. Politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy are using such issues as a way of boosting their political capital at home as they take up political ground previously occupied by the far-right.

Another example of this trend has been the unilateral decision of Denmark to re-impose controls on its borders. This has been pushed through by the far-right Danish People's Party (DPP), which is a member of the current government.

The issue of Schengen came to the fore at the last EU summit. Here it was agreed that there was a need to re-introduce some border restrictions in 'exceptional circumstances'. This was quite rightly opposed by CEE countries such as Poland, who feared that it could be used to discriminate against their citizens. However, in face of this opposition, an amendment was agreed that the border controls would only be applied to people who are not citizens of or have permanent residency in an EU country. Quite how border guards will be able to determine whether someone is an EU citizen or not is unclear. It opens up the possibility of people being stopped because of their perceived nationality, race, etc. Polish PM Donald Tusk made the totally unsuitable comment following this decision that 'we do not have an influence on whether the security services of particular countries will implement these regulations in a politically correct manner'.

Rather than making concessions on these issues countries such as Poland - especially as it currently holds the EU Presidency - should be opposing all attempts to renegade on the Schengen agreement. It is naive of politicians such as Tusk to believe that such moves will not affect his own citizens. For example, the mayor of the German town Guben - situated on the Polish border - has recently called for the reintroduction of border controls in Germany similar to those introduced in Denmark.

The attempt to constrain the movement of people within the EU acts against one of the greates achievements of the European Union, is an infringement on people's human rights and is being promoted by a resurrgent far-right bent on promoting division, racism and xenephobia in Europe.

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