FREEDOM. One of liberalism’s main contributions to human progress are ideas about the free movement for individuals, as in the case of the European Union. Therefore, liberals and other actors need to remember that ideas of free movement are not only about economic aspects. The possibility to move freely and safely also depends on ideas and stories regarding identification and institutions.
In 1947 the first meeting of liberal intellectuals took place in the small town Mont Pelerin in Switzerland. Discussions about migration and mobility were not on the top of the agenda, but several participants stated that free migration as in Europe would be unrealistic and impossible. Around 45 years later, freedom of movement became a possibility for all EU-citizens with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992-93.
Globally seen, the freedom of movement in the EU is unique because nowhere else in the world is freedom of movement for humans based on ideas of supranational citizenship with specific rights and freedoms. There is a similar example in South America, but far from the European system, concerning Mercosur countries: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. At the moment, the development in Mercosur regarding freedom of movement is going in a libertarian direction based on ideas of regional citizenship.
The development in South America offers hope and optimism concerning resistance against freedom of movement in Europe as a result of rising nationalism and populism since 2015. The intellectual and political support for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, better known as Brexit, has been based on a polarising discussion about migration. As several examples are showing today, Brexit is not some decentralising nor freedom-oriented process. Instead, it is a process based on nationalist and collectivist development where central planning, controls, uniformity and obstacles are favoured before freedom, openness and individualism.
During the Brexit-debates, dreadful and even racist opinions were promoted in the discussion about immigration and movement. For example, opinions such as that only high-skilled individuals should be able to immigrate to the UK. Or that immigration from the Middle East has to be reduced, or seven stopped for “white Britons” to not feel afraid. It is very easy to forget that behind statistical categories, the low-skilled individuals are still humans that also perform vital assignments such as working as nurses—an important factor in the time of Covid-19 virus pandemic.
Another example from the Brexit debate is the reasoning that “liberal economists” did not plan what the freedom of movement would mean for (British) national identity. This was stated by left-wing conservative opinion-maker David Goodhart, famous for his populist reasoning that humans are either “anywheres” as cosmopolitan individuals living in big cities or “somewheres” as nationalist individuals living in rural areas. Goodhart has since the 2000s argued in favour of a “post-liberal” future, including statements such as that the freedom of movement in the EU “lacks economic rationality” and foremostly benefits European academics and those in the UK who have made friends with someone as from Poland.
There are several examples of absurdity in Goodhart’s reasoning. Among other things, poorer Europeans that have moved from, for example, Romania to the UK could be categorised as “anywheres” because they have chosen to leave their local communities. Nor are there any homogeneous national identifications, partly because people are identifying themselves based on different stories and ideas. Also, the freedom of movement in the EU is a vital part of EU:s economic development and integration that could lead to EU:s economy becoming as integrated as in the case of federations as the USA.
Another important understanding of the freedom of movement in the EU is that the economic rationality exists when comparing results of economic differences between EU-countries. Reduction of differences between salary levels across the EU is also a result of freedom of movement for workers. This has been the case because employers, as in the construction sector in Czechia and Poland had to increase salaries for workers to keep them locally and offer them an alternative to moving to the UK or Germany.
Still, despite the economic rationality, the case of freedom of movement and migration in overall are also about non-economic aspects, including “identity-politics’ ’ as the Brexit process itself is showing. For those who believe in the importance of freedom of movement, it is simply not enough to reduce migration to only economic aspects partly because the vision of global free migration depends on people also identifying themselves with the planet and as global citizens.
For sure, people must be self-sufficient and have enough funds when we are moving. At the same time, we often move within and between cities, regions and countries with no or little money because of our different life situations. For example, it is easier to move as a poor person from a smaller town to a bigger city to cooperate with friends and family than it is to move from an Africa country to Europe.
Furthermore, it is important to understand the paradox of the current international system. Under the UN charter, the individual has the right to emigrate from that country but not to immigrate into a country without formal approval. This depends because the international system is still based on principles that nations or better said the governments can always decide who can migrate or not. However, not everything legitimate is good per see. For example, it is legitimate that many voters in Poland say that refugees who are Muslims should be prevented from immigrating. Still, such opinions are based on overblown fear in combination with ignorant, dehumanising and racist opinions by portraying refugees as potential rapists and terrorists.
The struggle for freedom of movement for humans has to be based on both economic and identification aspects. When the internal passport was abolished and freedom of movement introduced in Sweden in 1858, it went hand in hand with the development of the nation-states. When the freedom of movement was in the EU, it was also about favouring supranational ideas and counteracting nationalism. In similar ways, liberals and others who are in favour of a global free movement also need to create storytelling about identifications and institutions in cosmopolitan meaning where the EU:s history could be promoted as an important inspiration.