Brexit may be the most prominent attack on the European Union’s four freedoms, but it is by no means the only one. Subtler attacks are multiplying. If they are allowed to continue unchallenged, the EU will eventually crumble.
The four freedoms – freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people – are the four pillars of the EU. They give the union its strength but also, probably, its biggest weakness. If one of these pillars goes, the others will follow in short order.
Brexit was brought by politicians persuading voters that freedom of movement for Europeans was a bad thing – more specifically, that the freedom of Eastern Europeans to come and live in the UK was behind many of the negative consequences of the financial crisis and the austerity that followed.
Instead of admitting that public services like police and healthcare were cut, and that private operators of transport networks (in particularly rail) were cutting services to ensure profits, politicians and most of the tabloids whose owners wanted to see Britain leave the EU found the ideal scapegoat: the EU migrants.
It was easy to persuade the British public to go along with that story. The complicated history of Eastern Europe, and the sometimes not so honourable role played in it by Britain, is not high on the list of priorities for most of the people in the UK. So they believed the lies served to them without questioning them.
This direct attack on the Western side has been followed by subtler ones, which attempt to sap the energy of the EU’s Eastern flank.
The idea that freedom of movement of people is “depriving” the poorer, eastern members of the EU of young, talented people is not new; but it is being used more and more as an argument to bring an end to freedom of movement.
The Romanian finance minister, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said last year that the EU should introduce a system of work permits that would limit workers’ residency rights in another EU country to just five years. After five years, he said, the worker’s work permit should not be renewed, forcing the person to “say goodbye and move on”.
In a way, it is understandable why he said this. A third of Romania’s workforce has emigrated, and the country is fast running out of taxpayers.
But this is not the way to deal with the situation. Instead, he should be looking at his own government’s attacks on the country’s justice system and attempts to end the fight against corruption. These are cited by many Romanians as the main reasons why they left the country.
More recently, an article in The New Statesman repeated the same theme, under the headline “Romania: the land of no return”.
“In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt coined the phrase ‘Four Freedoms’ (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, from fear),” the article’s author, Matthew Engel, writes.
“I believe Brussels’ obsession with its own pastiche ‘four freedoms’ – across a continent with huge disparities in living standards and political cultures – is endangering FDR’s far more important vision. And that’s a crime against humanity, too. It stops Romania becoming a modern nation, and makes it a mere exporter of labour: a land perpetually dependent on remittances.”
The author does not, however, explain how come Romania did not become a “modern nation” before it joined the EU, when its people were still prisoners of a profoundly corrupt, abusive system ruled by the same political mafia created after the country was forced to become communist in 1947.
I believe that to take away freedom of movement under the pretext of “helping” the poorer EU members to “catch up” is the true “crime against humanity”. I do not know how long those who issue such theories have spent under authoritarian, corrupt regimes, but I assume not very long.
If they had spent part of their lives under a kleptocratic regime, they would have known that the best way to bring such a regime down is to deprive it of people to steal from. The Romanians who are leaving the country may be its saviours, rather than the ones that destroy it.