With the recent developments in Switzerland, the pan-European rise of popularity of the extreme right, and the recurring theme of xenophobia whipped up by the national press, one can be rightfully concerned whether the anti-migration movement in Europe is gathering pace in the run-up to the EU elections in May. Sadly, but not surprisingly, recent months have shed light on the deep rooted efforts to undermine one of the most fundamental principles of the EU project – freedom of movement for labour.

Leaving the recent referendum in Switzerland aside, bigoted attitudes, often bordering on dogmatism, have been polluting Europe’s public sphere for some time although they have become more apparent in the wake of the so called “big-bang” enlargement of 2004 (2007). Up until recently, most of the EU15 applied restrictions on the level of migrant workers coming from the new members even though the economic benefit of such migration has been since confirmed as positive for countries that did open their labour market. In the UK, for example, the Fiscal Sustainability Report carried out by the Office for Budget Responsibility (set up by the Government itself) found that migration boosts growth and brings more tax revenues into her Majesty’s coffers.

False as its premise may be, the argument that (EU) migrants cause an economic Armageddon is currently reinforced by the still present economic crisis. Moreover, the overhaul of citizens’ right to freedom of movement is by no means limited to Britain alone. According to the opinion polls carried out by Maurice de Hond and Ifop, over 80% of Dutch and 60% of French citizens believe that freedom of movement should be restricted for Romanians and Bulgarians. According to the Bertelsmann Foundation, two thirds of Germans see immigrants as an ‘extra burden’ on the country’s social services system and some 72% of Belgians believe that immigration has been generally or fairly negative for the country, compared to only 32% in Poland (here).

The nature of our democracy and the lack of leadership have meant that the anti-migration moods have made inroads into the political discourse. The German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich was quoted as saying ‘whoever is only coming to cash in on state benefits, and is therefore abusing this freedom of movement, needs to be meaningfully prevented’ (The Times, 5 March 2013). In a question to the EU Commission, MEP Andreas Mölzer mentions that the German Association of Cities had expressed discontent over the fact that Germany (and presumably other net contributors) should not pay twice to alleviate the same problem – i.e. Germany already pays its contribution towards helping poorer countries of Eastern Europe via the EU funds and should not be expected to then, on top of that, support impoverished migrants who end up in Germany in the shape and form of welfare payments.

In defence of citizens’ rights stands the Commission which, via both President Barroso and Commissioner Reding, has made it clear that the freedom of movement for labour is a “fundamental principle” which is “non-negotiable” (here and here). Moreover, Member States demanding a change to the functioning of our internal market (of which free movement of labour is one of the crucial elements) need to be honest about what they envisage and what they are concerned about.

If countries are worried about the level of abuse of freedom of movement then they should know that they already have a number of legal tools that they can use. Legally underpinned by the Treaty of Maastricht, all EU citizens enjoy fundamental freedom to move and reside freely within the EU (Article 21 here).  However, this right is subject to the limitations laid down in Directive 2004/38/EC (here). A right to reside in a country (i.e. a stay of more than three months) is not automatic and citizens must be either working or have sufficient means to support themselves. The Commission has as recently as January published a practical guide on the ‘Habitual Residence Test’ which should make it easier for countries to apply EU rules on the coordination of social security. Countries have at their disposal a whole list of criteria that they are free to apply before a single Euro cent is paid out to migrants. Among others, these include areas such as family status and family ties, employment situation, their source of income or even their reasons for the move. The freedom of movement for labour and the fight against abuse of such freedom are hence non-exclusive and countries can remain true to both at the same time. It does, however, require national solutions rather than an EU overhaul of the rights as such.

If, on the other hand, countries’ intentions are to do away with the principle of freedom of movement altogether then the EU should do all in its power to stop such efforts. The EU cannot and should not accept cherry picking from among the benefits of the EU membership. With the already lenient system of opt-outs and restrictions to labour markets, the EU has compromised enough on its internal integrity. More flexibility would only lead to reinforcement of the existing category of second class member states and EU citizens.

The EU is undergoing a significant hardship and as such it is being tested to its limits. At the same time, the process of change of the way communities work has accelerated in many domains. While we are rightfully concerned about the functioning of the banking union and the survival of the Euro, we should be very careful not to allow extremism and ignorance undermine integration via the back door. Countries concerned by abuse of the freedom of movement for labour do already have tools to tackle the problem but this means less populism and more policy efforts at the national level. Countries which are, however, only interested in claiming benefits without being ready to pay up for it do dangerously remind me of what they fear the most – the culture of “something for nothing”.