The Politics of Free Movement

Is the ‘free movement of people’, one of the four founding freedoms of the EU a principle that the left should defend? The pressure group ‘Another Europe is Possible’ seems to think so. But why? Strip away the associations of the word ‘freedom’ and the free movement of capital and labour, goods and services, is simply a way of describing the rule of market forces, free of political interference, in the EU single market. Trade unions, as McCluskey notes in his re-election campaign, have always sought to control entry to labour markets and hence competition. Labour markets, like capital markets, need more regulation, not less.

The trouble is that has often kept women and unskilled workers out of jobs they were perfectly capable of doing. But that isn’t a simple matter either. Unskilled labour organised to keep casual labour out, and women and unskilled workers often supported skilled worker limitations because they didn’t want to be a cheap labour alternative. And, of course, there are rich countries and poor ones. In 1894 the TUC carried a resolution calling for ‘pauper aliens’ to be kept out, rejecting an appeal from the President to welcome them, to draw them into trade unionism and better conditions rather than leave them at home as sweated labour to compete against us.

To sort this out we ought first of all to distinguish between ‘free movement’ in the EU and free movement in the sense of ‘open borders’, free movement across a globalised world.

In the EU free movement is really justified on the basis that Europe is a common economic and political space. Nobody in Europe is arguing for open borders. But while no one will argue that people from Birmingham shouldn’t take a job in London, there is an argument when people from Bucharest want to take a job in Birmingham. That is because political and cultural integration in Europe has lagged way behind economic integration. And given the problems of the Euro, even that is a mess. Brexit provoked a lot of nasty nationalism, xenophobia and even racism. But a lot of that ‘nationalism’ is simply a defensive huddling together, a demand for control of borders as a demand for control over the conditions of local life.

People like Stephen Kinnock, as a matter of electoral expediency, are calling for control in the form of a two tier immigration system that allows skilled professionals in and keeps semi and unskilled workers out but this is exactly the wrong response. It demands special treatment for Britain with a selfish pitch to recruit skills and punish the poor. Really free movement will follow when political and cultural identities have caught up with economic ambitions. If there are to be limits on free movement let them be Europe wide.  In the meantime, if we still want  to be part of Europe we should defend European immigrants to Britain just as the left defended the rights of e.g., Welsh migrants to the Midlands in the 1930s. Jeremy Corbyn should stop defending free movement as one of the principles at stake in the last war.

The argument for open borders is different. Those who refuse borders and demand worldwide freedom of movement do so on the grounds of human not market freedoms. And the argument is coupled with the responsibility of the developed West for the crimes of empire and financial imperialism, past and present. Curtailment of the right of movement is always and everywhere divisive, necessarily discriminatory as the better off seek to defend what they have against others, and always bolstered with racist and nationalist ideologies.

However, although the crimes of imperialism are real there is no future in demanding reparations. Second, the ideology of free movement depends on underlying assumptions about the universal brotherhood of man [sic], an essential if unrealised solidarity of the poor and oppressed everywhere. That universal identity might be an objective fact (identities are so different that it is difficult to speak about any kind of fact),  it is certainly not a subjective one. To move from the idea of common humanity to the principle of free movement is a moral not a political statement. Free movement in Europe has foundered on inadequate integration of the political space. The pretensions of globalisation notwithstanding there is no world political community. Unrestricted migration in a neoliberal and desperately unequal world is a recipe for internecine social conflict.

The politics of free movement starts with the conditions under which people live, the ideas they live by, and at least the possibility of building popular support. A left politics in the more developed world attacks imperialism at home and supports development abroad, celebrates the enriching social and economic benefits of immigration, but seeks to regulate labour markets. There should be measures to prevent undercutting labour standards, restrictions on recruitment where employers do not have decent training and local recruitment programmes in place, a requirement on companies that recruit a skilled employee from a developing country to fund the training of a potential replacement, and restrictions on speculative immigration (no job or family support). All this so long as we share with other countries the practical problems of dealing with the elemental force of the migration of peoples fleeing environmental disaster and political persecution.

Then there is support for economic development including policies on trade and investment and funding for infrastructure from schools and hospitals to sanitation and roads.

Free movement in the EU it is about the way Europe integrates and regulates labour markets; free movement on a global scale is about the politics of globalisation.

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