It seems that each time European leaders meet at a negotiation table, once great achievements of the European experiment fall whim to populism and elite governance.
On the economic side, in recent years, it’s been the bailouts extended to eight countries since 2008, including the curious cases of Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, and, first and foremost, Greece.
For banking, it was the erosion of banking secrecy, hitherto held sacred in countries such as Austria, Luxembourg and the non-EU state of Switzerland. No doubt each down buckled to pressure from U.S. authorities looking for tax minimizers.
And now, Europe’s attention turns to Switzerland as it begins talks with European officials to consider further immigration curbs.
That’s a result of the referendum tabled by the Swiss People’s Party against “”, filed in 2012 and passed last February. It won by gaining 50.3 percent of the vote, a difference of just under 20,000 people.
The adopted initiative stipulates that restrictions must be applied on the number of foreigners allowed to work in the country, which puts the long-standing agreement of free labor within Europe in jeopardy.
In August, Switzerland named Jacques de Watteville as the chief negotiator, the head diplomat to the EU from 2007-2012 and the key decision maker behind the Helvetic Republic’s abandonment of banking secrecy in 2013.
At stake will be the ability for EU citizens to freely work in Switzerland, and for Switzerland to continue to enjoy free trade and travel with the states in the EU.
How Switzerland frames the debate with Brussels will determine the fate of the free movement of people across Europe, especially in light of the refugee crisis calling states to action in recent months.
It would be foolish, however, especially in a time of crisis, to change the status quo when it comes to the freedom of movement across the European continent.
The Schengen Area experiment has been a victory for personal and migratory freedom, even for states like Switzerland and Norway, which are outside the EU.
Though less than 20 years old, it is one of the best live models for how the principles of open trade and open borders can actually be implemented into the real world and according to real political realities.
As of 2014, there are nearly 2 million foreigners who now reside in Switzerland, mostly from neighboring Italy and Germany.
They work steady jobs, pay taxes, shop in local stores, buy local produce, and contribute to the Swiss economy in a myriad of ways.
But by turning public opinion against refugees and those fleeing persecution and war, Switzerland’s populist politicians have succeeded in using this momentum to put free movement of labor with the EU at risk.
“People displaced by war should still be taken in but only with the aim of sending them back later when the situation in their country of origin allows it,” said Philipp Müller, leader of Liberal party (FDP) to the Schweiz am Sonntag paper. “People attempting to enter for economic reasons must be rejected,” he said.
Walter Wobmann, an MP from the Swiss People’s Party, called for a halt on Muslim immigration from Syria and Iraq into the country in January of this year. He also successfully lobbied for the ban on the construction on minarets in Switzerland in 2009.
Over 12,000 people asked for asylum in Switzerland in the first half of 2015, mostly fleeing situations in Iraq, Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia.
That number pales in comparison to the migrants from the EU, but it is nonetheless being used as the battering ram for implementing labor restrictions.
And on the outer borders of Europe, the same justification is pushing many political forces in those countries to ramp up the enforcement of physical barriers to entry.
Aided financially by the EU, Greece pays over 200 million euros to guard its external borders while Bulgaria pays just under 40 million.
This year, the Greeks earmarked 6 million euros alone for Operation Aspida, the plan to implement total protection and surveillance at the Greece-Turkey land border. A similar plan was brought to Bulgaria. This reduced the number of migrants entering into Bulgaria from Turkey from a high of 8,000 in 2013 to just 202 in 2014, according to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry.
But that’s including the fact that over 60 percent of these migrants are refugees escaping the violence and destruction in Syria, estimates Amnesty International.
While war is on their doorstep, these people are turning to the Mediterranean Sea and the hope of escaping and finding better means to care for themselves and their families in Europe.
Have no doubt: most economic migrants and refugees can actually afford the trip. What they can’t afford are the complex bureaucratic requirements that come with applying for a visa in any first-world nation such as my native Canada or the United States. Immigrants are asked to complete so much work for a tourist or permanent resident visa, and normally don’t have the resources to file again once if they are later denied.
As such, politicians and bureaucrats have made it next to impossible for well-meaning people to enter into the EU with dignity. This drives many of them to take risky, dangerous ships which carry them from Libya to an island in Italy or Greece, where they later claim asylum and then hope to make it to the UK, Sweden, or France. And those are the lucky ones.
Approximately 25,000 people since the year 2000 have died trying to cross Europe’s outer borders, according to the International Organization for Migration. All of them must dedicate huge portions of their savings to give to the smugglers in order to get them across, despite whether they actually make it ashore or not.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
If one is to imagine a European system in which asylum seekers and all migrants are welcomed within Europe’s borders without justification, what would this mean for our societies? Would they be richer? Poorer? Less free? More free? All the studies on mass immigration have revealed the plain fact that immigration is very positive for the economy, generating new jobs and new opportunities not yet explored.
The latest estimate posits that scrapping migration restricts would help grow global GDP by as much as 147 percent, or $80 trillion. Considering Europe’s high unemployment numbers and the problem of its slowing birthrate, more immigration could be exactly what nations need to get back on their feet and make their countries prosperous again.
This kind of unfettered immigration is exactly what existed for many years and allowed western nations to develop.
Austrian author Stefan Zweig recounts the devastating transition to requiring passport travel documents in the 1910s by stating that “perhaps nothing more graphically illustrates the monstrous relapse the world suffered after the First World War than the restrictions on personal freedom of movement and civil rights,” he wrote in his autobiography The World of Yesterday. “Before 1914 the earth belonged to the entire human race. Everyone could go where he wanted and stay there as long as he liked.”
If Zweig’s romantic vision could be restored, what would it mean for the thousands of refugees aiming to better their lives in a new country? Or for the thousands of others from countries around Europe aiming to improve their economic situation?
But will the refugees and immigrants be able to adapt properly? That’s a very fastidious concern from the populist parties of the right-wing across European countries. They believe the introduction of new cultures and new peoples within a society creates “divided communities” which may threaten the very fabric of society.
Thankfully, fellow Canadian journalist and author Doug Saunders can shed some light on this aspect.
His recent reporting in Germany reveals asylum seekers have actually been well integrated into German life and the economy, contrary to the wishes of many anti-immigrant voices within the country.
“It helps considerably that Germany has recently ended its policy of banning refugees from seeking employment: This had left many earlier asylum seekers loitering in public squares and shopping malls, falling into marginal lives and giving a bad image to immigrants in general – and depriving Germany of badly needed labour. Now they can work after three months, and employers and municipalities are pressuring Berlin to let them work sooner,” writes Saunders in the Globe and Mail newspaper.
It is these kind of observations which lead us to see that having more open borders in Europe would not be some kind of disaster scenario. In fact, it would save lives, create economic growth, and open up an entire continent to the diverse and beautiful countries throughout the world.
Yaël Ossowski, Programs Director for European Students for Liberty