British Prime Minister David Cameron has once again issued threats about the labor market and the benefits system in his country, just a few weeks before Romanians and Bulgarians — the penultimate countries to arrive in the European Union — will see the restrictions they are currently subject to regarding free circulation between EU countries lifted. Germany has also expressed its concern over the potential impact that the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe could have on its welfare state.
These concerns have made their way to the European Commission, which has stated that the rules governing freedom of circulation are non-negotiable. The response to the British initiative from the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, Viviane Reding, has been restrained: if there are abuses in terms of benefits, it is up to each member state to deal with them — but not to restrict the freedoms upon which the single market is based. The aim is not just to protect the free movement of capital, goods and services, but also the freedom of circulation of people.
Ever since the image of the Polish plumber became popular as a symbol of danger to the jobs of French workers, public opinion in a number of countries has become more and more radical. According to a recent poll, eight out of every 10 people from the Netherlands are opposed to the opening up of borders next year. The political celebrations that greeted the entrance of 10 countries into the EU in 2004, followed by the same joy over the entry of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, and more recently that of Croatia, is now being confronted by rampant protectionism in a large proportion of member states.
The refusal to coexist with citizens who come from poor areas, regardless of whether they are countries within the EU, has more than a whiff of electioneering to it. Some governments have chosen the European Commission as the target of their criticism, which is akin to apportioning blame to the EU for the problems that serve as a recruiting office for far-right, isolationist or Europhobic parties. It would appear that it is no longer enough to instill fear about immigrants from outside the European Union, but also fear of Europeans themselves: those from the north and center against those from the south and the east. That’s hardly the ideal situation ahead of next year’s European elections.