Adam Garrie: There is no freedom without freedom of movement

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British prime minister David Cameron recently caused a furore when suggesting that in future, the immigration from poorer EU countries to the UK should be restricted, thus undermining and ignoring one of the fundamental EU principles – the free movement of workers. David Cameron also described the immigration from A8 (including Estonia) countries to the UK since 2004 as “a big mistake”. Adam Garrie argues why the prime minister is wrong on this.

David Cameron’s coalition government begun its life trying to be all things to all people and in the process has managed to disappoint and dissatisfy those on the left and right simultaneously. Recently, Cameron has been offering rhetoric on immigration seemingly designed to appeal to the readers of xenophobic newspapers in Britain. Not content with the fact that clever Indian students and wealthy Chinese businessmen have a harder time coming to Britain than to virtually any other European country, he has turned his attention to the freedom of movement enshrined in European law and woven this phenomenon into his immigration dialectic.

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First of all, Cameron did everything he could to persuade his constituents he would limit the numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens from exercising their right to freedom of movement throughout the EU in 2014, although no concrete proposals have been offered, not least because any such proposals would violate EU law. Now Cameron has said that freedom of movement should, in a British context, be limited to countries with a level of wealth similar to Britain. Such limits will almost certainly not happen. Proposals like these would violate the European law which is enshrined in the statute books of every EU member state. Secondly, businesses both big and small would never stand for such retrogressive practices in an age where business is digital and global. Finally, the logistical issues involved are enough to bring down even a popular British government let alone one as unpopular as Cameron’s.

 “It’s about Estonian start-up entrepreneurs like the founders of the highly popular Transferwise being able to easily do business in London just as much as it’s about venture capital firms run by UK citizens being able to easily set up shop in Tallinn. 

At root, freedom of movement, like free trade in a geographic region, is about cooperation. Over the last several years, for example, Estonian entrepreneurs have teamed up with the UK government in order to try to deliver to UK residents the e-services Estonia offers its residents. While Estonia is not nearly as wealthy as the UK, in e-services and education Estonia is currently leaps and bounds ahead of Britain. Likewise, in terms of international business contacts, London leads all of Europe as the city where above all others international business is conducted. If Estonia wants a more global outlook in terms of business and the UK would like better e-services in the public and private sectors as well as a more modern, technology-driven education sector, cooperation between the two countries is essential. But this cooperation is not only done at a governmental level. It’s about Estonian start-up entrepreneurs like the founders of the highly popular Transferwise being able to easily do business in London just as much as it’s about venture capital firms run by UK citizens being able to easily set up shop in Tallinn. If freedom of movement were limited, such things would simply not be practical and many of Europe’s best and brightest would turn elsewhere. Anglophiles would turn to the US and Canada. Russophiles would turn to Russia and others would look further afield to India, Japan and China.

“Does Cameron want the Europe of 1953 or is he prepared to accept the much more hopeful realities of 2013?

In terms of mutually enriching the UK and Estonian societies (let alone other European countries), Cameron’s proposals are a step back to a forgotten age of corrupt border guards, mountains of paperwork and a sense that both Britain and the rest of Europe are small players in a global economic game where America, Russia and Asian powers are the real players. Does Cameron want the Europe of 1953 or is he prepared to accept the much more hopeful realities of 2013?

Furthermore, Cameron’s stereotyping of European immigrants, and this is to say A8 (Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia – countries that joined the EU in 2004) European immigrants, as “benefit tourists” is not only deeply insulting but it is also deeply false. Most A8 immigrants (and I have a feeling I know more of these people than Mr Cameron does) come to work, not to scrounge. Many I have spoken too aren’t even aware of the benefits they are entitled to as they’re not entirely bothered with doing anything apart from working, socialising and getting on with the realities of life. And this is where a more radical proposal ought to come into force. In an ideal world the EU (as legally it is not up to any member state) would limit all state benefits other than emergency service to citizens. This would satisfy those who consider EU immigrants a strain on public services in Britain and perhaps more importantly it would expose many (although certainly not all) of those opposed to the EU freedom of movement as xenophobes rather than people simply counting the costs of state expenditure. Without wanting to demean many of the good services the NHS (National Health Service in the UK – Editor) provides, far from being benefit tourists, many EU immigrants prefer to return to their home countries for medical treatment as they believe medical services in their home countries to be better than the NHS. I have heard this from Estonians, Italians, French, Danes, Austrians and Poles. Perhaps they ought to be consulted as to why they feel this way if Cameron is seriously concerned with improving the NHS. If Europe would agree to remove the prospect of non-emergency benefits from workers exercising freedom of movement, it would help create clarity in a debate where genuine concerns are often found festering in a sea of racism and parochialism.

“Cameron’s stereotyping of European immigrants, and this is to say A8 European immigrants, as “benefit tourists” is not only deeply insulting but it is also deeply false.

What’s more is, I speak not as a europhile but an internationally minded eurosceptic. I am deeply alarmed at what I see as an attempt to put a pressure on Ukraine by the EU. I am also alarmed at an undemocratic single-minded European political agenda which doesn’t account for the desires of ordinary people. I think the EU’s restricting its member states from freely trading with non-EU members to be deeply myopic. Yet I feel that freedom of trade and freedom of movement within Europe has been an economic, cultural and social success story, one which indeed could have been accomplished without the Brussels bureaucracy. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland trade freely with the EU and EU citizens can live and work in Norway, Iceland and Switzerland with a greater ease than they can in Britain as the aforementioned countries are members of the Schengen area where Britain is not. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, this simply means British airports have long and off-putting border queues for arrivals from European airports where Norway, Iceland and Switzerland do not.

So while the issue is directly connected with the EU it also transcends the EU. I believe that Britain under a leadership more enlightened than that of David Cameron could function harmoniously with Europe without being in the EU. That being said, free trade and freedom of movement are absolutely essential for any country in a small geographic region of the world with an overall declining population. Having a British referendum on EU membership is democratic and sensible but putting people who have been living in Britain for 10 years in some cases, in a position where they are fearful for their future is not only undemocratic but it is deeply inhumane and also economically foolish. Britain and Estonia bookend Europe in many ways. Britain has problems accepting the European aspect of its history just as Estonia has problems accepting the Russian aspect of its history. In this sense both countries ought to have a slightly less restful and more open-minded perspective on the possibilities which are only possible through cooperation.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

About the author: Adam Garrie

Adam Garrie teaches modern history at King's College London and is currently engaged in PhD level research in 20th century political history. He is a classically trained musician and enjoys writing about all styles of music, world politics and just about anything to do with Estonia.

  • Leonard

    Good points indeed, but I wonder if Estonia is the prime example considering how there are tens of thousands of stateless citizens living in Estonia, who were born there but now are required to pass complicated exams just to become a citizen of the place where they were born.

    • Albert

      these stateless citizens are mostly Russians who were brought into Estonia during the illegal occupation of the Baltic states. The reason they’re “stateless” is because they refuse to speak Estonian – yes, Estonian is a very difficult language to learn, but it’s required to become an Estonian citizen – just like any other country you want to be a citizen of.

      • Irene

        You have to be out of you mind to say things like “illegal occupation” under article like that and on the web site like that

        It was Soviet Union and people were not brought there, they were born there, get you facts right

        It should be against any laws especially human rights for someone having a “stateless” passport as you nicely put it, because on it it says “Aliens passport” which is an absolute disgrace

        They do not refuse to speak the language they just believe that it is obvious and normal for them to keep their culture that they were born in i.e. Soviet Estonia.

        I am not saying that people who live in Estonia should not speak Estonian, they should, I think your comment is offensive and insulting

        Estonia doesn’t care about people who were born there, doesn’t count them as their citizens – no wonder people live the country

        Estonia should stop blaming Russia for occupation, and grow up and be smarter and engage into the business relationships and benefit economically from having such a strong and powerful neighbour

        Estonia was never independent it was always under someone, and now it’s in EU and probably only for a reason just to be under anything but not in any relationships with Russia

        How is it being in EU is being independent I wonder?

        • outsider

          “They do not refuse to speak the language they just believe that it is obvious and normal for them to keep their culture that they were born in i.e. Soviet Estonia.” That would say all.
          Soviet Estonia was a temporary vision to someone. It is time to move on and adapt to thesociety in it’s full originality. You do not like it you leave.

          • Irene

            So you’re 5, and then everything changes in the country, and you’re 5….. do you move on? and adapt? remember you’re 5 years old…. so do you leave? Imagine it be you and think again about what you said.

            This has to be looked at from different perspectives

            To disappoint you I’ll let you know I have Estonian passport

            Russian people can not care less about occupation and whatever else there is these days…they live,work, study, survive as any other person in the world.

            Estonians forget the fact that Russians in Estonia are not Russians like Russians in Russia, they are more of Estonian Russians, they have a different accent, the culture is different too, Russia cannot be home for some of people who are like that because they grew up in Estonia and they are different so where do they go? Do we give them “Alien’s passport” and send them to moon?

            Again, where do people get the facts? Why Estonia thinks it was something special in Soviet Period, why other countries from post soviet union do not have such attitude towards Russians and Russia? – you are correct, time to move on – for Estonia

            Russians integrating their kids to Estonian kinder gardens and schools – I would think they are doing the right thing, but how much of a pressure and abuse they get? Can a 10-12 year old be nationalist? I don’t think so – where is it coming from? I would say from their parents/ other grown up people around them who for some reason still talk about some things that cause their kids have this stingy attitude towards their classmates – things like that are just disgusting. These Russians kids (only Russians as their parents are Russians) that go to Estonian kinder garden and schools can speak Estonian perfectly and they struggle to think/speak/write in Russians because they are different now, so why they are not being accepted by Estonian kids? They’ve adapted, but they are not being accepted, who should move on? and do you make them leave the country? …..

          • Geraint

            If that is the case, then certainly the grey passport situation will disappear in a generation. Unfortunately people are skewed by their experiences – my mother is still wary of Germans,for example. Having survived the Liverpool blitz. what prejudice is created from their past is presented as fact in the present. It is the responsibility of government to integrate their people. It is the responsibility of adults to teach their children to judge people by their deeds, not their background. We all fail and for that we should be ashamed.

            I am from Wales, here the language is a key pillar of the culture. The language is in decline, because it is both not supported enough and the attitude of many who speak it is to look down on those who do not. i am a non-fluent speaker, I find not many people have the time to help me. What I know from this experience is that the answer is not to stand back with the perceived moral high ground and say ‘well you should.’ Whilst shaking your head in distaste. You have to encourage people, the rewards are infinite on a national scale. Learning a new language with a different structure is bloody difficult, believe me. So if people or government don’t want to help, don’t bother complaining there are citizens who cannot speak Estonian… QED

          • Irina

            This has escalated to off topic of the article.

            But an interesting fact is that the attitude is mainly towards Russian-speakers, a British citizen can come to Estonia, work and live, not speak Estonian, they can get a live to remain, and get a mortgage-buy house,cars etc, and a child that was born in Estonia (not in Soviet Estonia) and speaks Estonian is not entitled to Estonian passport. Seems a bit discriminative and unfair.

            Everything been said here should be then equally addressed to all ethic groups not the minorities. But it doesn’t work that way.

  • Geraint

    Is there not a case for the state to support and encourage people to learn a working knowledge of the Estonian language. I can understand the desire to strengthen the cultural identity of a nation, but you have to do it by not excluding or alienating ethnic groups, where in the UK we have reaped what we have sown.

    Cameron is showing himself up as the political animal he actually is, he believes that the greatest opportunity to win the votes he is short of to retain office is to tap into those who support the loathsome UKIP

    • John

      There have been numerous reports that teachers in schools in eastern (predominantly Russian-speaking region) Estonia don’t have the necessary level of Estonian language skills. This has been going on for years and years.

      If the teachers can’t speak it, how can they expect their students to learn it? Massive failure of the government. They are basically ignoring that region and not even providing children with qualified teachers. Simply shameful.

      The government claims they can’t convince teachers to work there, but my guess is that if they offered better pay and benefits, that wouldn’t be a problem.

      • Geraint

        Does everyone want to work in Tallinn because the money and amenities are better, John?