This is an extended version of the talk I gave at a debate on freedom of movement at the Battle of Ideas conference in London on Saturday.
The default position, in discussions such as this, is that immigration controls are the norm and that those advocating free movement have to justify what is seen as an outlandish position. I want to turn this claim on its head. In any public space, humans have, or should have, the right to move as they wish, just as they have, or should have, the right to speak as they wish. In both cases, any attempt to prevent individuals from acting freely must be justified by good reason.
Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering America. Many Britons want to ban Donald Trump from entering Britain. In neither case is it sufficient to say that such a ban is reasonable simply because Muslims or Trump have crossed a national border. The existence of a national border does not in and of itself provide a reason to restrict movement. It is for those who advocate restrictions on movement to make the case as to why the existence of a national border requires the state to infringe an individual’s freedom of movement. That is the case whether we are talking of individuals (Trump), groups (Muslims) or of movement in general.
Providing a proper justification is particularly important because restrictions on freedom of movement are more than simply policy options. They are coercive acts of the state. Not simply the inconvenience of a border guard checking your passport. But the coercion of military patrols shooting migrants; of detention camps that imprison thousands in the most brutal conditions; of deals such as the EU’s with Turkey and Sudan, or Australia’s with Papua New Guinea and Nauru, under which these countries are paid to lock up all those deemed heading for Europe or Australia. These are not merely the unacceptable face of immigration controls. They are the reality of border controls today. And it’s those advocating such coercion, not those opposing it, who have to make a moral and political case for it. You can’t simply say ‘I want controls, but only the nice bits’.
So, what are the arguments against freedom of movement? They fall into three broad categories: that it undermines sovereignty, defies democracy, and has disastrous practical consequences. Let’s look at each briefly.
Sovereignty demands that a nation be able to make its border policy. It doesn’t define what that policy should be. There is no reason why a sovereign state cannot adopt freedom of movement as its border policy.
Consider the case of Spain. When Spain joined the EU in 1986, it had an open border with Morocco and hence with North Africa. A condition for EU accession was, however, the closure of that border; from 1991 all Moroccans and other African nationals, entering Spain through its Moroccan border required visas. In this case, a sovereign Spain had established an open border; controls were imposed by EU rules.
Freedom of movement, in other words, is not in itself an infringement of sovereignty. What the critics are confusing is the right to control borders with the duty to enforce controls. A nation should have the right to define its policies, including border polices. But a nation does not have its sovereignty infringed if it chooses to open its borders; sovereignty is infringed only if the nation is coerced into opening its borders.
Those who defend controls by pointing to sovereignty are actually avoiding the issue. The debate is not whether a sovereign nation should be able to determine its border policy. It is rather whether one should use that sovereignty to impose controls. Taking back control, to use a current phrase, is not the same as restricting movement.
The second argument against freedom of movement is that open borders are undemocratic, because there is no mandate for such a policy. It is true that liberal immigration policies can be enforced only through winning public support, not in spite of public opposition. This, however, is not an argument against freedom of movement. It is an argument for winning a democratic mandate for such a policy. That would be true for whatever policy one is debating.
I believe in free abortion on demand. There is no public support in Britain for that policy. It would be undemocratic to impose that policy against the wishes of the majority. But there is nothing undemocratic about arguing for free abortion on demand despite being a minority voice. Nor does the attitude of the majority have any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of the policy. Free abortion on demand is not wrong because most people do not support it. The rightness and wrongness of abortion policy rests upon the moral and political reasons one adduces, not the degree of public support for it. That is equally true of freedom of movement.
Insofar as there is public opposition to freedom on movement, it would be undemocratic to impose such a policy. There is, however, no iron law that the public must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Large sections of the public have become hostile because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all hues over the past 30 years. On the one hand, politicians have recognised a need for immigration. On the other hand, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a problem that must be dealt with. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for the masses whom many regard as irrevocably racist, and incapable of adopting a rational view of immigration. This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatize migrants and to create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration. But none of this makes a policy of freedom of movement wrong in principle nor does it suggest that the public will always be opposed to such a policy.
The third set of arguments against freedom of movement relates to the practical consequences of such movement: that open borders would allow the whole world to walk in; and, in particular, that it would allow criminals and terrorists to walk in.
Remember that until relatively recently, open borders were the norm. Britain had an open door to the Commonwealth until 1962, America to Mexico for much of the 20th century, Spain to North Africa until 1991. In none of these cases did millions come. The borders were eventually closed not because of migration pressure but because of political pressures driven by fears about migration. Fear, not reality, was the fundamental problem.
Ironically, it is the closure of borders that often creates the very problems that the closure was supposed to solve. Take the closure of Spain’s border with North Africa. Prior to the closure of the border, Africans came for seasonal work and then returned home again. The open border worked well. The closure of the border did not, however, stop North Africans coming to Spain. Now they took to boats to smuggle themselves in. That was the real beginning of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In May 1991 the first bodies were washed up on Spanish beaches. Those that smuggled themselves into Spain did not return to North Africa – had they done so, it would have been much more difficult to return – but stayed, and often brought their family. The ‘problem’ that many thought had to be solved by closing the border, was in fact created by border closure. Much the same is true of, for instance, the closure of the US-Mexican border.
Nor is it the case that freedom of movement means that nations cannot check, or stop, terrorists or criminals from entering. All it means is that there are no arbitrary controls based on such categories as nationality, wealth or class, any more than there should be on such categories as religion, race or sexuality.
Many critics of immigration argue that mass migration creates unemployment, depresses wages and diminishes resources. Most of the evidence suggests otherwise. The grievances that many people feel are real. Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of voicelessness and marginalisation. Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive these changes. The trouble is, so long as we continue to scapegoat migrants for such problems, we will continue to ignore the underlying reasons for wage restraint, the rise of zero hour contracts, the shortage of housing, or many people’s sense of being politically abandoned and marginalized, and consequently never begin properly to address these problems.
Critics claim, too, that immigration transforms local culture and creates a more fragmented, broken society. Immigration has clearly brought major changes, in the physical character of European cities, in the rhythm of social life and in the sense of what it is to be British or German or Swedish. But immigration is not alone in driving social changes, nor is it even the most important driver of social change. Had not a single immigrant come to Britain, Britons today would still be living in a vastly different nation from that of half a century ago. Feminism, consumerism, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the acceptance of free market economic policies, the destruction of trade unions, greater individual freedom, the atomisation of society, the decline of traditional institutions such as the Church – all have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But it is immigrants who primarily have become symbolic of change, and of change for the worse.
Critics of mass migration argue also that certain types of migrants are more difficult to integrate because their values are so different. In the past Irish and Jewish immigrants to Britain, Italians and North Africans to France, Catholics and Chinese to America, were met with the claim that there were too many, that they were too culturally distinct, and too corrosive of native values. These days the finger pointing is usually aimed at Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, or Muslims more generally.
It is true that immigrants carry with them cultural baggage, have attachments to particular traditions and institutions, and adhere to particular moral codes. But migrant communities are neither homogenous nor are such attachments fixed. In America, for instance, Muslims have far more liberal attitudes to those of Muslims in Britain, or indeed in most of the rest of the world; they tend to be more liberal, too, than evangelical Christians even on issues such as homosexuality. This is not merely an issue of America vs Europe. French Muslims are closer to the attitudes of American Muslims than to those of British Muslims, as were British Muslims themselves a generation ago.
All cultures, traditions and institutions change and evolve. British cultures, attitudes and values are significantly different today than they were half a century ago. How those of immigrant communities transform depends less on where they have come from than on where they are. Hence the importance of public policy and of civil society in shaping the relationship of migrants to wider society. In simply scapegoating migrants as the problem, we ignore the wider changes – the institutionalization of multicultural policies, the mainstreaming of identity politics, the decline of civil society organizations – that have created a more disaffected, tribal society, and not just with respect to migrants. It is the wider changes that have made societies more fractured and fragmented.
We can turn the question of consequences on its head. The mass movement of people is a fact, and always has been. Proportionately, the numbers of people migrating today is no different to that 50 years ago. The numbers of refugees are actually lower today than they were in 1992. Nor, despite the hysteria, are most migrants heading for Europe. More than 75 per cent of African migrants, for example, are migrating to other African countries. Perhaps the most grotesque aspect of European or Australian policy is the insistence that dealing with migrants and refugees should be an issue primarily for poor countries. Against this background, suppose that every nation took the attitude taken by rich states such as Britain or Australia or the EU. What then would be the consequences? Mass detentions and mass deportations on a global scale. And effectively walling up people from poor countries into their own lands. It is already happening. Kenya is deporting tens of thousands of Somalis from camps and building a 700 km long wall, citing EU policy as justification. Similarly Pakistan with Afghan refugees.
What drives hostility to freedom of movement is fear – fear that migrants will flood our countries, take jobs, live off benefits, undermine culture, degrade values. It is a fear that is creating a world not of greater sovereignty or democracy but of walls and walled-in people, every nation its own Fortress Europe. Is that really what we want?
I am not making the argument that all borders should be opened tomorrow. Liberal immigration policies, as I have already suggested, can be established only with public support, not in spite of public hostility. We live today in a world in which walls and restrictions are on the rise. Controls, again as I have already observed, create the very problems that they are supposed to solve. Against this background, opening all borders tomorrow would be neither feasible or desirable. The question of whether or not one has open borders depends on circumstances and context. What I am insisting, however, is that none of the arguments against freedom of movement have much depth. The most powerful claim is that there is no democratic mandate for such a policy; but that is an argument not about the rightness of freedom of movement but about the implementation of such a policy. I am arguing, too, that current attempts to keep out migrants for arbitrary reasons are both unworkable and immoral, resting as they do increasingly on harsh coercive measures; and that scapegoating migrants for social and economic problems make it more difficult to tackle the real causes of those problems. The only coherent approach is to build the case for the liberalization of immigration policy, moving towards an ideal of freedom of movement.