Introduced with the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, freedom of movement has allowed, since then, millions of European citizens to travel and seek work freely across EU member states without the need for a visa. Over the last decade, this fundamental right at the core of all European cooperation among member states has caused divide and controversy for those who lived in the richest nations of the bloc. Euroscepticism, which was originally a sentiment advocated by those who demanded independence from the legislative system imposed by the EU, saw a spike in the continent’s political landscape thanks to a renewed adversity towards the uncontrolled immigration caused by freedom of movement of people.
The Brexit vote unleashed a stronger sense of rebellion in other European countries. Europeans started addressing their frustration against EU constraints on their economies and jobs by turning to newly formed anti-establishment political parties and those like Ukip that had had little success until then.
EU countries considered to be at the heart of the EU’s integration such as Belgium and Germany, also begun to take measures against freedom of movement rules with characteristics that were easy to be bent. Belgium has expelled thousands of unemployed EU citizens last year.
In Germany, EU nationals have to apply for a residence card if they wish to work. This card can be withdrawn for various reasons, after which the holder is required to leave Germany or be forcibly expelled.
In France, some local and regional authorities have even insisted on the use of the French language should be mandatory on public building sites – contrary to EU law.
The so-called Moliere clause was adopted by six of France’s 13 regions in March 2017. The law was introduced by Valerie Pecresse, the conservative head of the wider Paris region in an effort to stop companies from hiring low0paid EU workers.
She also justified it as a security issue – workers might not be able to communicate unless they share a common language. It was later rejected by the French government in May 2017. The government ruled that the clause “cannot validly claim that it is there to protect workers, given the guarantees that are provided by European and national law.”
Amandine Crespy, Political Science Professor at the Université Libre of Brussels, claimed the deployment of caveats to limit freedom of movement in EU countries was a response to public concerns and a clear shift in modern European politics.
EU news: Has freedom of movement affected the rise of populism in the EU?
Speaking to Express.co.uk, she said: “Officially and historically Belgium is one of the least eurosceptic countries. “But this is a sign that Belgium is normalising in this way in the sense that this core right, the freedom of movement, has reduced or weakened in many countries.
“For instance, France has also taken measures to reinforce controls at the border.
“So to use the measures within the Schengen agreement that are supposed to be exceptional but are not supposed to be permanent limitation to the freedom of movement.
“And also with the refugees and the radical steps that have been taken during the refugee crisis by countries like Hungary and others certainly we can see that some rights that were taken for granted in the past, some ten years ago, are no longer taken for granted.
“And national governments across the board are much more ready to respond to some concerns or what they perceive as concerns from the population by limiting those European rights.
“So national governments see that this can be rewarding in electoral terms, to be active on that side and they proceed like people demand in terms of security or in terms of people feeling threatened economically or culturally by European citizens establishing themselves and maybe having access to social benefits in their home countries.”
Nigel Farage, former Ukip leader and British MEP
France has also taken measures to reinforce controls at the border
She warned EU institutions could no longer ignore the political climate despite their natural incline to safeguard the regulatory structure built with fatigue over the years.
Ms Crespy added: “On the one hand the EU institutions’ natural wall in European politics is certainly to preserve what has been built over the years and the rights that exists and the rules that have been agreed a long time ago among member states.
“But on the other hand, the Commission as well as the European Court of Justice can’t ignore the current political climate.
“It’s a political choice, it’s a normative decision that European citizens and people who are elected by them have to decide on.
“One thing for sure is that this is a central, if not the central, right and cornerstone of the single market and of the European Union.
“And if there is such a thing as European citizenship then freedom of movement is a cornerstone of it.
“So if it was to be abolished there wouldn’t remain much of the single market from the passport to the circulation of goods among member states.”
In Britain, the UK Independence Party – whose key policy was to leave the European Union – saw its biggest political twist and success in 2014. The party suddenly became the new anti-governmental party of choice for the anti-politics vote.
The party won its first ever Westminster seat in October 2013, after the Conservative MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, defected. Thamid Chowdhury, co-founder of the People’s Challenge campaign and Charity Here for Good, believes one of the factors that played in favour of Ukip’s and other populists, eurosceptic parties across the bloc was freedom of movement.
He said: “I think when things are difficult people will often try to latch onto a particular issue and put all of their problems under that particular issue.
“In this case, I think it was freedom of movement. I’m not making a judgment of whether that’s right or wrong.
“I think there were definitely problems and demands on services that led people to reach that conclusion.
“It wasn’t plucked out of the sky. There were reasons because people felt the animosity towards the EU and freedom of movement.
“And when it came to the recession and all of the effects of austerity since then, whatever your political beliefs I think it’s accurate to say that freedom of movement – and people’s perception that people were taking advantage of freedom of movement rules – definitely did factor into the rise of Ukip and the rise of euroscepticism more generally.”
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016 was an unexpected consequence of Ukip’s success in the 2014 European elections.
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage led the Brexit campaign for the UK to leave the Brussels bloc. The debate around the UK’s exit was dominated – among other things- by anti-immigration sentiments.
While most Remain supporters believed it was important to remain in the EU single market, most of those who voted Leave argued ending freedom of movement was more important.
However, Mr Chowdhury claimed it was not the concept of freedom of movement per se that pushed people to vote the EU in 2016, but rather the instrumentalisation of the core EU freedom by political parties in the UK over the last decade for their own political ends.
He said: “I don’t think there was a problem with freedom of movement itself, I think there was a problem with how politicians grabbled with that as an issue.
“It’s really easy to say ‘this isn’t our fault, this isn’t our responsibility’ – which happened across lots of parties – and say ‘this is the reason we can’t do this, this is the reason that we have a strain on the NHS, because we want to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands’. “I don’t think that’s an inherent problem with freedom of movement, I think it’s a problem with how people used freedom of movement for their own political ends.”
Luigi Di Maio, Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini
In March 2017, Italian anti-immigration and eurosceptic party Lega saw an uprise of 15 percent in the polls.
And Italian anti-establishment party Five Star Movement became the largest party in the country with 35 percent of the votes in its favour.
The two previously unlikely partnered groups suddenly found themselves responding to similar demands from Italian people, who expressed with their votes the wish to rebel to years of austerity dictated by European economic policies.
Freedom of movement might have not been a direct consequence of the eurosceptic sentiment in Italy, but the introduction of one of the four single market’s freedoms had a knock-on-effect on the broader unaddressed issue of immigration.
Italian Political Science Professor Sergio Fabbrini claimed the EU failed with the introduction of the Schengen Area to think of a common border policy that would protect the citizens of those countries more exposed to incoming mass-migration.
He said: “The EU didn’t support Schengen with a single European border policy.
“So it was easy for somebody to enter within the territory of freedom of movement and then move around.”
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission
But the biggest blow to the European Union came at the end of 2018 when Italy, Austria and Switzerland abstained from voting on the United Nations (UN) Global Compact for Migration.
In the bloc, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic voted against the deal. The United States and Israel also rejected the proposal.
A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which monitors extremism online, looked at the discussion surrounding the UN deal in Europe. Analysing tweets and posts on YouTube and Facebook, the researchers found that “right-wing extremist and right-wing populist actors played a disproportionate role” in influencing the discussion around the deal before last October.
The controversy around the UN migration pact led to the collapse of the Belgian Government.
Czech Author Petr Kratochvil claimed the Czech Republic, “one of the most eurosceptic countries in Europe”, has a completely different approach to migration and freedom of movement.
Yet, its attitude towards migration resulted in exactly the same rebellion towards the Brussels institutions.
Mr Kratochvil said: “On the one hand if you ask Czechs what they consider the most important things about the EU or about our EU membership, one of the first things they will say is freedom of movement.
“Because it’s a small country and many people still remember the Communist Party and we could not cross the border to Austria and Germany.
“Then the situation changed and people travel a lot across the continent, so this idea of freedom of movement is very much seen by the population as one of the biggest contributions and advantages of the EU.
“But of course if you ask the other way around ‘are you in favour of free movement of migrants’ the attitude changes.”
The fortunes of far-right and other populist movements are among the most-watched issues ahead of the EU election.
The parties grouped in European Parliament’s eurosceptic and outright anti-EU groups may end up being an even bigger force than they are now. The latest polls foresee them winning about 155 out of the next Parliament’s 705 seats.