Chapter 12: An unstable equilibrium: freedom of movement and the welfare state in the European Union
What happens when a comprehensive right to free movement meets national welfare systems? If we look at the contemporary EU we can begin to see at least part of the answer and the resultant unstable social and political equilibrium. Free movement for goods, capital and services as well as people – the so-called four freedoms – has been a key component of the EU’s identity as an international organization since its foundation in the 1950s and is closely associated with economic integration. A positive ideology of free movement linked to a radical experiment in open borders is uneasily coupled with a continued attachment in member states to social solidarity and cohesion associated with national welfare states. Trying to square this circle has unleashed new political dynamics that challenge the European project. This chapter links the contestation of free movement to perceived effects on welfare, declining trust in politics (which itself is linked to immigration) and as a factor underlying growth in support for Eurosceptic, populist and extreme right political parties. The political sensitivity of the issue was made crystal clear in a joint letter (Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior et al., 2013) sent in summer 2013 by the Austrian, German, Dutch and UK interior ministers to the Council Presidency calling for action to combat ‘the fraudulent use of the right of free movement’ and the resultant ‘excessive strain on the social systems in the receiving societies’.
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