A decade after the EU's largest expansion, open borders still rankle

Ten years ago, the EU opened its doors to Eastern Europeans seeking a better life. But even today, anti-immigrant sentiments remain powerful in Europe.

By , Staff writer

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    A UKIP European election billboard is displayed in area of London last week. Britain's UK Independence Party has launched its European election campaign with a series of billboards carrying a stark message: They are coming to take your job. 'They' is workers from other European Union countries, who have the right to live in Britain.
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A man dressed as a construction worker is featured collecting change in the newest campaign of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). “EU policy at work,” the sign reads. “British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labor.”

It doesn’t say more than that, but the message of the populist party is clear. It’s a rebuke of the hundreds of thousands of Europeans, mostly from poorer nations, who have migrated to Britain since joining the 28-member bloc.

Today marks ten years since Poland and nine other nations, with a combined population of almost 75 million, joined the EU in the bloc's largest ever expansion. While the right of these new members to live anywhere is now a decade old, it is still far from being a settled issue. Indeed, it is a key debate in elections to the European parliament later this month, now that Bulgaria and Romania – and their significant Roma populations – gained full access to the labor markets of richer EU nations on Jan. 1.

Recommended: Keep calm and answer on: Take our United Kingdom quiz.

And although the debate is Europe-wide, in many ways it is most fraught in Britain. The number of Poles and other Eastern Europeans, many of whom took jobs as plumbers, handymen, and construction workers, migrated in far higher numbers than Britain had anticipated. It was here that swarms of reporters flocked to airports on New Year’s Day, awaiting the wave of Bulgarians and Romanians (who never arrived).

The rhetoric of UKIP, and like-minded anti-EU parties expected to win big next month, appeals to many Europeans, particularly those who are weary of sustained unemployment. For the better part of this year, politicians have warned of uncontrollable – and so far unfounded – “benefits tourism,” when immigrants allegedly travel abroad to take advantage of foreign social services. But the rhetoric dismays others, who say there is no turning back.

Laszlo Andor, the EU's commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion, says freedom of movement is a guiding principle of the EU and that Europe should anticipate more migration in coming years. He calls it an opportunity for all. “The access to other country's labor markets, that is something which enhances the employment opportunities for many people,” he told The Christian Science Monitor.

Freedom of movement

Freedom of movement was enshrined in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. And working and residing abroad has progressively gotten easier for EU citizens since then. Today, for a Frenchman who wants to live in Germany or a Dutchwoman in Spain, there is no paperwork, visas, special permits, or requirements to register. The half billion citizens of the EU can work wherever they'd like within the entire bloc.

It's a right of movement that's been the envy of would-be expatriates, from Americans with a sense of wanderlust to Africans fleeing war, and it’s celebrated in pop-culture classics like the French-Spanish movie "L’Auberge Espagnole," based on Europe’s cherished Erasmus study-abroad program.

Still, with similar standards of living between nations and cultural and language barriers, intra-EU migration accounts for just a sliver of the population and had barely been noticed – until now. The numbers are still small, but they are growing. From 2003 to 2012, intra-EU migration grew from 1.3 to 2.6 percent of the population, according to a report commissioned by the European Commission.

More significant is the timing of the growth, which has occurred during economic malaise when barriers go up reflexively and talk of migrants taking working-class jobs heats up – much as it does in the US.

Matthew Goodwin, a political science professor at Nottingham University and author of "Revolt of the Right," says that UKIP, with its anti-EU message, is not just drawing disenchanted voters on the right as is often understood. It is also attractive to Labour party members who feel “left behind,” he says: “Those who are without skills, qualifications, and resources to compete in the global economy.”

Supporters of EU integration, however, say it is precisely during crisis that mobility serves its best purpose for the bloc. The unemployed can move elsewhere for work, improving their own lives and relieving their home countries. Meanwhile, countries seeking more labor can readily import it. The Spaniards and Italians fleeing unemployment at home for opportunities in Germany or Britain are a testament to the principle at work, they say.

“People moving is good for the whole development of Europe. It creates more welfare and brings people together. If we don't want that, we have to abolish the European idea politically,” says Klaus Zimmermann, director of the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn. “We cannot export goods and not allow for people to move.”

'Less free'

But UKIP disagrees, and hardly stands alone. Geert Wilders, the far-right leader in the Netherlands, for example, staged a protest outside the Romanian embassy in December that included a “no entry” sign. In a working class neighborhood in the Hague, local resident Ryan Berrevoets says people are fed up with the influx of “outsiders,” which is why they are drawn to Mr. Wilders' tough stance on immigration. “They see more foreigners than home-grown Dutch on the streets.”

And the debate is not limited to the far-right. Switzerland’s populace narrowly approved a referendum to end the freedom of movement it had granted Europeans despite not being part of the EU. Some of Germany’s mainstream right called, controversially, for welfare abusers to be deported. British Prime Minister David Cameron toughened welfare rights ahead of Jan. 1, and has promised more rollbacks. "Free movement within Europe needs to be less free," he argued in a November opinion piece for the Financial Times.

David Goodhart, director of British think tank Demos, says he believes that “benefits tourism” itself is a red herring, but it has raised good questions about whether the EU has gone too far. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty gave rise to the notion of EU citizenship: Today a resident of Spain with "habitual residence" in France is treated as if he were French, except on voting rights. Mr. Goodhart has called for various ways of limiting freedom of movement, including possibilities like invoking “emergency measures” to restrict migration, either by skill or occupation, during certain time periods. 

“The principle of nondiscrimination is far too indiscriminate,” going beyond what most citizens of countries consider "fair," he says. "Non-citizens should be subject to different rules."

[Editor's note: The original headline mischaracterized the EU expansion in 2004.]

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