Established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the free movement of labour across the European Union is a fundamental right enjoyed by all EU citizens. It forms a core principle on which the notion of a prosperous, peaceful and integrated Europe rests.

Even so, Europeans have historically exercised their right to move freely across the EU far less than predicted due to linguistic and cultural barriers that have kept many Europeans tied to their national labour markets.

Yet, the ongoing crisis may be changing Europeans’ outlook on free movement. Last year, migration from Greece to Germany was up by 90%. Unsurprisingly, young Spaniards are also fleeing their domestic 50% unemployment rate for growing markets in other EU countries that can still absorb new workers.

As a result, many national governments struggling with high domestic unemployment and angry electorates, compounded by fear of anticipated uncontrolled migration flows that could result from a catastrophic collapse in the Euro, are calling that basic freedom into question. The United Kingdom, for example, has been vocal on these issues, threatening to unilaterally curtail the free movement of people as part of its attempt to negotiate a “new settlement” with the EU.

Unfortunately, this reaction is not supported by the facts. Empirical evidence suggests that the fear that foreign workers will crowd out domestic ones is misplaced. Migrant workers rarely displace the domestic labour force. Instead, they contribute substantially to national economies through the labour they supply, the taxes they pay and the services they consume.

Labour market protectionism will not lift Europe from the current crisis, but will certainly create larger economic issues in the future. Aging European member states will face a labour shortage on a massive scale in the coming decades. Soon enough, European nations will be fighting for new migrants, trying to attract workers at all levels from Europe and beyond.

As such, developing a nationalistic attitude towards the labour market is a dangerous and short-sighted response to the ongoing crisis. Eroding the foundation for labour mobility within Europe would set the EU further back in its meeting the critical need of spurring growth and ensuring long-term economic prosperity.

Beyond the substantial economic benefit, free movement also paves the way for a common European identity. Ultimately, simply trading goods across borders and integrating fiscal policies will not complete the necessary foundation for closer political union.

The fundamental right of European citizens to move, work and build their lives in other member states, including establishing families and nurturing friendships, fosters a true sense of common European citizenship. If Europeans start closing borders to their fellow Europeans today, before long there will be little remaining sense of “European” left to defend.

 

Author: Anu Bradford is a Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and a Board Member at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. She was honoured as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010.

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