EU Citizens, Free Movement and Ontological (In)Security in the United Kingdom: Beyond National Citizens and Post-National Entrepreneurs?
Owen Parker, University of Sheffield
Summary of Bord[eu]r Jean Monnet Project project presentation, December 2021. – download the participant’s biographies (pdf).
- Securitisation: casting of an issue/group as existential threat to a polity/ ‘people’
- De-securitisation: returning a previously securitised issue/group to the realm of a ’normal/ liberal’ politics
- Ontological security: a psychological sense of a coherent/ whole self (that may be perceived as threatened as a consequence of processes of securitisation)
Key questions and answers
- How/why did the free movement of people (FMoP) become ‘securitised’ in the UK (and drive Brexit) given its positive benefits?
- In 2004 the New Labour government (under Tony Blair as Prime Minister) opened labour markets to new member states (the so-called A8 members including a number of Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs)).
- Geopolitical drivers – pro EU and pro-enlargement in particular
- Economic drivers – flexible/ neoliberal labour markets – fill gaps in labour markets
- Many more came to the UK than anticipated (most from Poland).
- Certain sectors became highly dependent on EU labour from CEECs.
- Many argue that EU migrants from CEECs in UK had a negative impact and this drove politicisation:
- Labour market competition
- Downward pressure on wages
- Welfare competition
- But the evidence for each of these not convincing
- Evidence points to more positive economic benefits than negative.
- But people believed these negative narratives: the issue was securitised by certain elites and the certain media.
2. How were EU citizens cast as a threat to the (ontological) security of UK citizens?
- The above narratives of scarcity and competition in labour markets and for public services became particularly prevalent post-2007 economic crisis when there was significant material hardship in the UK.
- EU citizens were increasingly presented as EU ‘migrants’ and portrayed as threat to the ontological security of UK citizens a threat to ‘home’ (as nation) and ‘routines’ (of work) and, more generally to a ‘British way of life’.
- Following access of A2 states (Bulgaria and Romania) to UK labour markets (in 2014) and in the context of the Brexit campaign (2015/16) these narratives of scarcity were supplemented with more transgressive narratives, which racialised EU citizens (especially Romanian Roma in the UK).
- The ‘hard eurosceptic’ UK Independence Party (UKIP) (especially its long-time leader, Nigel Farage) was key in driving the securitisation of the issue after 2014, as was the Eurosceptic British tabloid press. UKIP benefited electorally.
- In the context of the Brexit campaign, discourses on FMoP were purposefully conflated with the post-2015 refugee crisis (famously encapsulated in Farage’s notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster).
- By the time of Brexit negative perceptions of FMoP/EU citizens were widespread; the public regularly over-estimated the numbers of EU citizens in the UK and the ‘problems’ associated with their presence; and elites from parties across the political spectrum had (wrongly) accepted the veracity of the above scarcity discourses.
- In this period the Conservative government tried to exert some ‘control’ on FMoP by limiting access to benefits for economically ‘inactive’ EU citizens (extending a longstanding policy of making access to welfare conditional on time in work).
Key normative/ theoretical question
3. Should progressive actors ‘de-securitisation’ the issue by advocating for the return of FMoP?
- In other words, from a normative perspective, should we advocate for a return to FMoP in the UK?
- Yes, but we should argue for more than the status quo ante….
- Because the status-quo-ante championed a market citizen wherein the ideal EU citizen was economically active, usually a worker filling gaps in flexible UK Labour markets
- Concretely this led to policies which excluded vulnerable EU citizens with patchy labour market histories from accessing social support including housing
- But do they deserve welfare if not ‘contributing’?
- UK flexible labour markets (for instance, so-called ‘zero-hour’ contracts) create precarious working and living circumstances EU citizens, which leaves them vulnerable to un/under employment, which in turn creates problems in terms of ‘legal residency’ and access to welfare.
- So I would argue they deserve welfare.
- Post-Brexit (post-2020) similar problems have arisen under the ‘Settled Status’ scheme. Those with ‘Pre-Settled Status’ (unable to prove 5 years residence pre-2020) and often the most vulnerable EU citizens have been denied access to welfare. The homeless in the UK are disproportionately represented in this group. (notably the ECJ)
Progressive actors (in UK and beyond) should support free movement, but promote a more solidarist and inclusive version than that which was championed by New Labour after 2004 and than that which the European Union (and, in particular, ECJ jurisprudence) currently requires.
An International Relations/ Security literature which argues for ‘de-securitisation’– a reversion to a normal or liberal politics–in the face of ‘securitisation’, should recognise the potential for exclusion within a ‘normal’/ liberal and domestic politics. In particular, it should recognise that the championing of a post-national market or ‘entrepreneurial’ citizen (in place of a national citizen) can create its own exclusions.