Free to Move

By de Benedetti, Carlo | The World Today, August/September 2004 | Go to article overview

Free to Move


de Benedetti, Carlo, The World Today


Europe needs dramatic changes in its policy towards immigration. Free and complete internal immigration from the new member states should be accelerated, and a common European approach should replace the current closed-door policy. The emphasis on fighting illegal immigration through border controls is likely to be flawed, and only a pan-European policy has any chance of success.

IMMIGRATION LAW AND policy has recently taken centre stage in the British policy debate. This should not be surprising and is not just the result of the visa scandals. Immigration is set to be one of the most - if not the most - controversial topics of the 21st century.

It is a multi-disciplinary issue involving economics, politics, moral and religious values, as well as international relations. This seems particularly true in the present international climate.

Despite the multi-disciplinary dimension, I still believe in the principle of comparative advantage. And on this occasion, the comparative advantage lies in two dimensions: economics and Europe. As a European entrepreneur, I tend to look at issues from a cross-country European perspective. And as an industrialist I obviously view them from a business and economics standpoint.

DRAMATIC CHANGE

Europe is experiencing one of the most dramatic changes in its relatively short history with ten new countries formally joining the European Union (EU). They are small economically, with significantly lower income per capita than the fifteen other members - but large demographically. The two phases of eastern enlargement culminating with the planned admission of Bulgaria and Romania involve more than a hundred million people.

One of the key features of the common market is the free movement of people. This is a potentially huge flow of immigration. Indeed, in the long run, those hundred million extra workers will compete in a free economic area. But why just in the long run?

Simply because the Union has welcomed the citizens of the new member countries by shutting the door in their faces. Actually, it is doing worse than that. Because there is no agreement on common rules to be applied to the new citizens during the seven-year transition period, each of the old members has decided to establish its own regulations without coordinating with the others. In general, these substantially tighten migration or other restrictions for newcomers.

Austria and Germany, the destination of four out of five migrants from eastern Europe, announced early last year that they would restrict migration from the new member countries for the full seven-year transitional period. France and Belgium decided to maintain current restrictions on immigration for new EU citizens for at least the first two years.

Finland, initially thought likely to take a liberal stance, postponed the opening of borders for at least two years and tightened immigrant access to welfare. The Swedish prime minister proposed to do the same, but fortunately was overruled by parliament. Greece and Italy opted to treat citizens of joining nations as if they were migrants from countries outside the Union.

Thus, all the countries bordering the new members have effectively been closed to migration by workers from the 'new Europe'. Britain opted for a less dramatic restriction, though citizens of the new Europe will not have access to most social benefits. Even such milder restrictions are controversial and possibly counter-productive.

ECONOMICALLY WRONG

From a political economy standpoint, this tightening of restrictions is an obvious reaction to mounting public concern about migration issues. According to a 2002 Eurobarometer survey, one in two EU citizens believes that migrants, wherever they come from, are already abusing the welfare state, and two out of three consider that the Union should only open up to countries with a comparable living standard.

Closing the door to the new citizens is economically wrong for two reasons. …

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