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Jan 31, 2013 | 02:30 GMT

4 mins read

Anti-Immigration Rhetoric in the European Union

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The European Union must confront the question of what to do when citizens along its periphery — which is marked by record-high levels of emigration — want to migrate to its core but the countries there are unwilling to receive them. The widening divide between countries along the edge of the European Union and those at its center is just one of many challenges of Europe's economic crisis. Recently, Northern European countries began to question the free movement of persons within the EU, one of the pillars of the European project.

The United Kingdom amplified its anti-immigration rhetoric after a speech in which Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on British membership in the European Union. The EU arrangements created in 2005 that restrict the rights of Bulgarians and Romanians to live and work in other EU countries will expire Jan. 1, 2014. The United Kingdom is legally obligated to honor this deadline and accept citizens from those countries, but is looking for alternatives to discourage immigration. 

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Following rumors that the United Kingdom is planning an advertising campaign to discourage Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from moving there, Cameron's official spokesman confirmed that Downing Street was considering curbing immigration. Immigration Minister Mark Harper said Monday that migrants from Romania and Bulgaria who travel to the United Kingdom without a job would be told they must have private medical insurance to prevent the British National Health Service from becoming an “international health service.”

A day after Harper's statement, the Swedish Migration and Asylum Policy Minister suggested visas be introduced for citizens of Western Balkan countries. According to Swedish media, the ministry already sent letters to the other 26 members of the European Union with this proposal. Between 2009 and 2010, the European Union decided to apply a visa waiver for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania given the EU accession negotiations with these countries. This decision has faced criticism by several European countries out of fear that tourists from the Western Balkans could leverage the lack of internal border controls in the European Union to become illegal immigrants or to seek asylum. 

These attempts to limit immigration follow several EU leaders' questioning of the Schengen Treaty, which eliminated these internal border controls among signatory countries, prompting a general re-evaluation of the principle of free movement of people. Previously, criticism of this principle mainly came from extremist parties on either side of the political spectrum. However, the European crisis has led moderate parties to adopt the rhetoric of extremist ones, a pattern present in France and the United Kingdom as well as in the Nordic countries and in Central Europe.

The rise of anti-immigration rhetoric coincides with increased emigration in countries on the Continent's periphery. Portuguese authorities recently admitted that up to 240,000 people had left the country since 2011. This accounts for more than 2 percent of Portugal's population. Something similar is happening in Spain, where the population declined for the first time in a decade in 2011 due to emigration. And in 2012, nearly 1 million people left Spain. In the early stages of the economic crisis, migrants were mainly foreign citizens from South America, Africa or Eastern Europe returning to their home countries. In recent years, an increasing percentage of Spanish and Portuguese citizens have moved to EU states such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

This situation represents a political and economic challenge for both the center and the periphery since demographic change is affecting the entire Continent. Because of their relatively strong economies, northern European countries are able to attract immigrants to mitigate the effects of their shrinking workforces. The question is to what extent are these countries politically prepared to receive such a high number of immigrants. Northern Europe is quickly approaching the point at which this economically feasible solution may not be politically viable. 

It is difficult for countries in the European periphery to find a way out of the economic crisis due to the combination of emigrating youth and an aging population. Some countries are trying to retain their university graduates by, for example, prohibiting the emigration of students who received a scholarship from the state, but these efforts are limited in their effectiveness. The possibility of a "brain drain" is currently a potential scenario for southern and eastern Europe. 

Most important, the crisis is threatening the foundational pillars of the European Union. Criticism of immigration, which was traditionally focused on non-EU citizens, is moving toward the rejection of European citizens, to whom the European treaties guarantee free movement around the Continent. So far, the criticism of intra-European migration is limited to rhetoric, not action. But it is moving slowly toward the top of the political agenda in Northern Europe, winning greater legitimacy and popularity in the process.

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