Open borders policy or a quest for more control?

Academic Article

Abstract: During the last few years, different policy-makers and academic, economic and social actors have supported the idea that opening international borders is an inevitable long-term consequence of globalisation, a cornerstone of the global extension of human rights and global justice as well as a coherent argument against the constant failure of harsh immigration controls. The freedom of movement inside the European Union in the case of the East enlargement is the most far-reaching form of regional integration.

Open borders policy for Central and Eastern European (CEE) migrants is presented as a magic bullet: (i) for the development of their countries through remittances, (ii) for meeting the labour market shortages and (iii) for migrants themselves. This article examines the freedom of movement for CEE migrants to the old Member States and assesses their employment prospects, their working conditions as well as the rights that are associated to the European citizen status. It argues that the rhetoric of open borders in the context of the East enlargement is misleading, as aside from the economic benefits to host countries, these open borders provide only a limited freedom of movement for people and do nothing to lift the invisible boundaries that exist due to the lack of political, social and cultural integration. In a wider immigration policy context the rationale of open borders with CEE countries is more a matter of immigration control and managing low- and high-skilled labour. CEE migrants have been granted a temporary free movement in which their own prospects are reduced.

The moral stance that global justice can be served by a world of open borders in which individuals are free to move wherever they wish presumes a world without borders, without states, without repressive regimes, without vast differences in the health, education and welfare services offered by governing authorities, and without vast differences in incomes and employment.

In the absence of these conditions the noble vision becomes a nightmare…

(Myron Weiner 1996: 177)


Looking at immigration attitudes inside the European Union (EU), public opinion and public policy have become polarised regarding the lifting of borders in favour of the free movement of people. On the one hand, there is a general trend towards hardening immigration regulation because of its assumed negative impacts on unemployment, security, economy and social and national integrity. On the other side, there is a growing consensus among policy-makers, academic, economic and social actors that opening international borders is an inevitable long-term consequence of globalisation, a possible solution for responding to labour shortages and for addressing the demographic decline in Europe. In addition migration appears to be a viable policy option for addressing inter-country inequalities, as well as a cornerstone for the global extension of human rights and global justice (Casey 2009; Pécoud & de Guchteneire 2005; Weiner 1996). This paper relies on the assumption that migration is able to have important development outcomes as well as reducing North-South inequalities (DRC 2009). Even though the right of free movement across borders is not a right enshrined in any declaration on human rights,[1] its denial gives rise to some of the worst abuses of human rights (Hayter 2004; Pécoud & de Guchteneire 2007).

This article makes a case for the right of free movement and explores public policy options for its implementation through an analysis of free movement of persons in an enlarged EU. This analysis focuses on the free movement of labour within a given limited geographical area. Under ‘possible’ or ‘feasible’ immigration policy, it understands an immigration policy that benefits immigrants, sending and receiving countries. In addition, this paper uses Sen’s (1999) understanding of human welfare, which sees human well-being as both the ultimate goal as well as the means of development.

The EU accession in May 2004 of eight Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries[2] along with Malta and Cyprus, and the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in January 2007 changed the European migration landscape in an unprecedented way. The Eastern enlargement is therefore an interesting case study for free movement of persons for three main reasons. Firstly, unlike in the case of former accessions, highly developed welfare states in the EU would share internal borders with considerable less-developed countries, such as for instance Finland with Estonia or Germany with Poland. Second, the EU, compared to other regional free-movement zones, such as the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States (US), Canada and Mexico, represents the most far-reaching form of regional integration mainly because it tries to overcome the limitations of a single economic integration by promoting a socially and culturally integrated Europe. Finally, the EU enlargement is an interesting case study because it becomes the preliminary testing ground for future freedom of movement on a global scale. According to Casey (2009: 33), the East enlargement seems to represent the basis for all future roll-outs of open-border arrangements.

I argue that the rhetoric of open borders in the context of the East enlargement is misleading, as besides the  economic benefits to host countries, these open borders only provide only a limited freedom of movement for people and do nothing to lift the invisible boundaries that exist due to the lack of political, social and cultural integration.

This paper is arranged into two sections, as follows:

Section I presents the case of free movement of persons from CEE countries and analyses the impacts on migrant workers mainly in the United Kingdom and Germany. Both official and unofficial transitional restrictions infringe on the free movement of labour and lock migrant workers into situations of high vulnerability and exploitation and low upward mobility. In addition, CEE migrants’ free movement is undermined by restricted political, social and cultural rights that constitute fundamental hurdles to mobility.

Section II shows to what extent the rationale of open borders with CEE countries in a wider immigration policy context is more a matter of immigration control and managing high- and low-skilled labour than an extension of freedom of movement. Finally, the open-border policy with CEE countries is a temporary freedom of movement because immigration policies are designed as temporary work programs in which migrants’ benefits are restricted.


Rethinking Free Movement inside the EU?

The EU has created a frontier-free area within which (i) people, (ii) goods, (iii) services and (iv) capital can all move around free without restrictions. This four-fold freedom of movement is sometimes called “the four freedoms” (European Commission). Freedom of movement of persons is undoubtedly one of the four most important freedoms of the EU’s fundamentals of a single market.

In this section I will first present the case study of free movement of persons inside the EU in the context of the East enlargement. I will challenge the free movement principle inside the EU by pointing out the economic, social, cultural and political difficulties CEE migrants encounter in the EU.

  1. Regional Free Movement in the EU: A New Challenge 

The origins of free movement rights in the EU date back to the early 1950s. Free movement was introduced by the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) formed in 1951 by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, to facilitate specialised workforce recruitment across national borders. While the right of free movement was initially limited to nationals of member states with recognised qualifications in coalmining or steelmaking, the treaty of the European Economic Community signed in Rome in 1957 generalised this fundamental principle (Favell and Recchi 2009). On 14 June 1985, on the river-boat ‘Princess Marie-Astrid’ beside Schengen in Luxembourg where France, Germany and Luxembourg have a common border, five of the ten EU member states (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany) signed the Schengen agreement to gradually remove their internal frontier controls and introduce freedom of movement for all individuals who were nationals of the signatory member states, other member states or third countries within the Schengen area (Kunz and Leinonen 2007). In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam incorporated the content of the Schengen Agreements into the mainstream of European Union law. This was defined as ‘an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured’ (Kunz and Leinonen 2007). Except for the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, every EU27 country joined the Schengen agreement as well as four non-EU countries, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Even though the UK and Ireland have not yet participated in the abolition of border controls inside the EU, they began taking part in some aspects of the Schengen agreement, such as the Schengen Information System (SIS), from 2000 and 2002 respectively.

In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam incorporated the content of the Schengen Agreements into the mainstream of European Union law. This was defined as ‘an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured’.

Following the declaration of the European Council in Copenhagen in 1993, which allowed European states to apply for EU membership, ten Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries did so in 1995 (European Parliament 1993). The Council started its negotiations and assessments with this group in 1999. In order to qualify for membership, EU applicant countries must meet a series of political and socio-economic criteria, the so-called Copenhagen criteria. The EU8 countries met the criteria in May 2004; Bulgaria and Romania (EU2) in January 2007. It was an experiment that had never been undertaken on such a large scale before. The change in European migration trends was unprecedented in many aspects. First, the accession of EU8 increased the EU population by 28 percent, to more than 500 million people (Currie 2009). This figure rose by a further 29 million when the enlarged EU took in the EU2 (Currie 2009). Second, the unemployment rate in certain accession states was very high and the income differences between the old member states and the EU8 and EU2 countries were substantial: as much as 60 percent between some accession and EU15 Member States. Income gaps with the old Member States were on average much greater at the time of accession than was the case for the Southern enlargement (Krieger and Maître 2006). 

Prior to the enlargement, there were fears, intensified by hostile press coverage, of mass exodus of accession nationals into the labour market of existing EU member states, which would increase competition for jobs, deflate wages and disrupt social cohesion (Pollard et al. 2008). This was partly due to a large series of migration forecasts carried out in the late 1990s that exacerbated fear of massive flows[3] (Pijpers 2007). For instance the Dutch media headlines stated that enlargement would imply mass migration to around 1 million without mentioning from where and for how long (Pijpers 2007). As a result, in 2004, many countries, except the UK, Sweden and Ireland, implemented transitional restrictions on the free movement of workers from all the new member states. In the case of the UK, many more EU8 nationals registered to work than predicted (Pollard et al. 2008) [4]. This was mainly due to a misunderstanding of the high amount of CEE nationals that have already been working in the UK prior to accession, rather then entering as ‘new’ migrants. For example, after 1989, approximately one million Polish nationals per year looked for illegal work in EU countries (Jordan and Düvell 2002: 88). In addition, a much higher number than predicted came to the UK, because almost every EU15 country has kept its labour market closed (Grove-White 2010). 

  1. Restrictions on the Free Access of the Labour Markets…

Similar to the southern enlargements in the 1980s, the EU15 – except for the UK, Ireland and Sweden – put in place transitional restrictions for the free movement of labour. These transitional restrictions were carried out in all the new states with the exception of Cyprus and Malta for a maximum of seven years (Pollard et al. 2007). They have only been applied to labour migrants and not to seasonal workers, students or tourists. For both EU2 and EU8 migrants, the transitional period lasts for seven years and is divided into three phases according to a ‘2+3+2’ formula. The provisions outline that for the first two years following accession, access to the labour markets of existing EU member states depends on national laws and the policy of those member states with the possibility of extension for another three and additional two years. These transitional restrictions deny some individuals freedom of movement. Hence member states scarify a fundamental EU citizenship right (Pijpers 2007).

In theory, UK, Ireland and Sweden implemented free access to their labour markets. However, there are still some restrictions and regulations left. For instance, the UK inserted a last-minute clause that allowed free movement of workers upon the condition that the new accession members registered with the Worker Registration Scheme (WRS). In addition, the WRS controls EU8 workers’ access to certain welfare benefits and services and aims to encourage participation in the formal economy as well as providing empirical data to monitor the inflow of migrants and formulate evidence-based policy. Furthermore, the UK government decided in October 2006 that Romanian and Bulgarian nationals would only get gradual access to the British labour market starting in January 2007. While skilled workers continue to work within the Highly Skilled Migrant Programmes (HSMP), low‐skilled workers are still employed within existing schemes or are required to apply for an Accession Worker card. Once they have worked legally for 12 months without a break, they have full rights of free movement and no longer need permission to take work (Pollard et al. 2007).

Even though the transitional restriction regimes represent the legal framework that undermines freedom of labour inside the EU, they are in practice not always successful. First, the WRS has not been successful. Evidence shows that many EU8 migrants do not know about WRS, while others do not register because of the costs that were £50 in 2004, increased to £90 in 2007 (Pollard et al. 2008), while others said that it was not worthwhile (Anderson and Ruhs 2010). On the other hand it appears that in some instances it is at the employer’s (or agency’s) insistence that workers do not register, as there are few checks conducted and legal enforcement is weak (Currie 2009). In addition, the transitional restrictions applied in some of the countries did not always stop migrants from coming (Kahanec and Zimmermann 2009). There are countries that have introduced restrictions, such as Germany, but still have experienced larger flows than predicted (Drew and Sriskandarajah 2007). In Germany, many CEE migrants profit from free movement despite its restrictions and became ‘self-employed’ in order to turn around the law restricting access to the labour market (Brenke and Zimmermann 2007). In the Netherlands, Polish workers have found mobility strategies that challenge the work permit requirements for Polish workers in the Dutch Lower Rhine border region (Pijpers and Van der Velde 2007). Here, these strategies draw on legal frameworks other than free movement of labour and are therefore highly difficult to control by labour market authorities. For example, benefiting from the ongoing liberalization of services in the European Internal Market, self-employed Poles are entitled to offer their services to Dutch clients in the Netherlands without needing a work permit[5] (Pijpers and Van der Velde 2007: 829). As a result, the idea that people merely go to places where labour markets are open is misleading.

Whether countries put in place transitional restrictions or not, such as it is the case for the UK, the working conditions for CEE migrants are different than for other EU citizens.

  • … And its Consequences: Free Movement of Capital, Exploitation of Workers 

In general, CEE workers are praised for their work ethics. Newspaper articles report that ‘Polish people work incredibly hard’ (Times, 14/05/2006), or that ‘migrant workers from Poland have a better work ethic and are more productive’ (Dailymail 12/02/2007). On the one side, free access to the EU labour market is presented as a financially attractive opportunity for CEE migrants. They are prepared to work for a short period of time in low-skilled jobs in which they can earn more than in high-skilled professions at home (Pollard et al. 2007). Even though, CEE migrants are expected to benefit from free movement and access to EU15 labour markets, their benefits are challenged because of the transitional restrictions and worker schemes that often result in semi-legal working conditions where migrants are locked into situations of high vulnerability and exploitation and low upward mobility.

Firstly, one of the implications of the transitional restrictions is a trend towards illegal or semi-compliant migration (Anderson and Ruhs 2010). Semi-compliance is a situation where a migrant is legally resident, but working in violation of some or all of the conditions attached to his/her immigration status (Anderson and Ruhs 2010: 196). EU8 and EU2 nationals are often subcontracted to get around restrictions as well as working illegally either in the informal economy or as supposedly ‘self-employed’.

Many research programs have identified the archetypal CEE migrant as young and university-educated, yet has been categorised as low-skilled, low-status and low-paid jobs, mostly in the agriculture and food processing, construction, care and cleaning sector or in hospitality. Surveys reported that there is a lot of brain waste, because highly qualified workers take low-skilled and low-wage jobs (Pollard et al. 2007). In the UK, 70 percent of EU8 workers make no use of their skills (Ibid). In addition, migrants are paid less than nationals. In the UK, 89 percent of CEE migrants working in the UK earned less then £400 per week before tax, compared with 57 percent of workers born in the UK (Ibid). Generally EU8 and EU2 nationals work on average four hours longer per week than those born in the UK. In Germany, recent EU8 migrants earn in average 24 percent less than German natives and work 1.8 hours a week more than non-EU immigrants (Brenke et al. 2010). Especially during economic downturns, immigrants, represented mostly in low-skilled jobs and without full access to welfare benefits are typically hit hardest (Sumption and Summerville 2010).

Furthermore, the prospects for upward mobility as well as carrier prospects are relatively low for CEE migrants. Indeed, the list of top 20 occupations for which EU8 nationals have registered has remained stable from 2004 to 2008 (Home Office 2008). In the case of Polish immigration to the UK, migrants still rely on their social network for getting work (Sumption 2009). This is another reason why upward mobility among CEE migrant workers is low.

It does not seem that membership in the EU is yet having any qualitative impact on the employment experience of CEE migrants, despite their EU citizenship rights. Migration and free movement of labour seem rather to be the means to extract surplus value from the labour that constitutes the base of capitalist production (Sassen 1988). According to free trade theory, every country has a comparative factor advantage. More precisely, the Heckscher-Olin law predicts that countries should either export capital- or labour-intensive goods (Smith and Toye 1979). The free movement of labour for the new accession states is framed in a neoliberal logic where the specific aim of free labour migration should meet the demand for low-wage work in strategic sectors in key locations of the world economy. On the demand side of labour immigration, firms are becoming increasingly sensitive to cost-competition, and increasingly see foreign labour as an ideal means for achieving greater wage and working time flexibility (Caviedes 2010). CEE migrants have been assigned the role of a flexible reserve army of low-skilled and cheap labour for the EU15 when labour shortages so require (Currie, 2009: 125) in order to respond to the ‘ever-growing demand in the UK for cheaper goods, cheaper services’ (Grove-White 2010). In line with Piore’s analysis of the dual labour market, the CEE migrants occupy a second labour market and take ‘3D’ jobs – dirty, difficult and dangerous – which the West’s citizens no longer want (Favell and Recchi 2009).

Migration and free movement of labour seem rather to be the means to extract surplus value from the labour that constitutes the base of capitalist production.

After having discussed the economic restrictions for CEE immigrants in the UK and Germany and their impacts on the migrants themselves I will now start assessing the political, social and cultural boundaries CEE migrants face as well as their implications. 

  1. Additional Boundaries: Lack of Political, Social and Cultural Integration and its Implications

Beside the ‘economic’ right of free movement, each CEE migrant has residence rights in every EU15 country and can rely on the principle of non-discrimination in the host state in order to access various social rights and benefits on an equal basis with nationals (Currie 2008: 148). EU citizenship, as established in the Maastricht Treaty, refers to membership and participation in a community and denotes both duties and rights of the citizens (Ibid). In this section I argue that political, social and cultural rights are different for CEE nationals than for other EU15 residents. As a result, free movement is undermined because restrictions on these rights constitute fundamental hurdles to mobility.

First, political rights make provision that the Community nationals residing in a Member State other than their country of origin may vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections (Currie 2008). However, the Commission is still critical about the ‘serious lack of information in this area’, because of the rare use, on the whole, of these rights by EU15 nationals and even more by the CEE countries where information is even scarcer (Vink 2003). In Luxembourg, for instance, where the proportion of non-national EU citizens who are eligible to vote and to stand as candidates exceeds 20 % of the total eligible population, the national government has put in place a derogation that EU nationals have to reside in the country for five years as well as register to vote much in advance (Kollwelter 2010). As a result, the voting possibilities for CEE migrants, most of whom stay for a short time, such as three to four years, is very low. Similarly, in the case of CEE migrants participation in trade unions, Susan Cueva from UNISON (2010) states that membership is especially low because of a lack of information.

Another hurdle for mobility is the lack of integration into the social system. Even though Sweden gave migrants full access to its social welfare system, this was not the case in many other EU15 countries. For instance in the UK, even though the rules governing the welfare entitlements of EU8 and EU2 nationals in the UK are broadly the same as those of British nationals who live or work in other EU member states (Pollard et al. 2007), evidence suggests that only a limited number of EU8 and EU2 migrants (and their families) had relied on their equal treatment rights to gain access to social benefits (Currie 2008). For instance, in the UK, unless CEE migrants have worked full-time for a year, they have no right to public funds and only limited access to services (Ibid). Many CEE migrants face difficult housing situations. Recently London has faced a rise in homelessness among CEE migrants in extremely difficult situations; already 15 have been removed and returned home (Flynn 2010; Grove-White 2010; Ramesh 2010).

Finally CEE migrants face language boundaries, and a rise in xenophobia. The number of languages spoken in 27 EU Member States restrain many people, especially those with a limited education, from moving to another country (Kunz and Leinonen 2007). For instance in the case of the UK, where open borders have been least managed, many local institutions face difficulties in handling cultural differences because of a lack of funds for language courses and for more teachers and social workers (Johnson 2010). Even though CEE nationals are ethnically ‘similar’ to Western Europeans (Favell 2008: 704)[6], settlement abroad is difficult and discrimination is perceived by many (Favell and Nebe 2009). Indeed, the Observer states that some Polish immigrants in Britain left early, blaming high crime levels and racism (Townsend 2007).

To summarise, even though EU15 countries were preoccupied in lifting economic borders, they have not dealt with political, social and cultural boundaries. This has on the one hand consequences for the migrants themselves, and on the other hand challenged local communities that were not prepared to deal with the impacts of big change in population (Grove-White 2010; Cueva 2010).

The EU’s free movement framework demonstrates to what extent European integration has mainly been driven by economic integration and has resulted in a form of membership labelled ‘economic citizenship’ (Currie 2008). 


The Rationale of Open Borders Policy inside the EU:

Controlling Immigration for the Benefit of Host Countries 

I have argued that open borders rhetoric inside the EU is misleading due to the restriction of economic mobility and the lack of political, social and cultural integration. By putting the East enlargement in a wider immigration policy context, I will analyse the rationale of open borders policy as an immigration policy inside the EU. I will argue that open borders are less a matter of free movement than an attempt to control immigration for the benefit of host countries because of three main reasons. Firstly, the East enlargement has resulted in an exclusionary process at the edge of the EU for non-EU migration. Second, opening up the borders to CEE countries has been an attempt to fill low-skilled labour shortages from inside the EU. Finally, CEE migrants have only been granted temporary free movement.

  1. Exclusion at the Edges of the EU

The East enlargement has important implications for immigration policies inside and at the edges of the EU. For every EU8 and EU2 country, accession to the EU was conditional. Besides respect for the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, measures aimed at immigration control are perceived to be an essential condition for EU membership. The PHARE programme has been originally created in 1989 as the ‘Poland and Hungary Assistance for Restructuring their Economies’ (PHARE) program, and has expanded from Poland and Hungary to currently cover all the EU2 and EU8 countries (Andreas 2003). It is the main financial instrument of the pre-accession strategy for the CEE countries, allocates two-thirds of its budget for the training of border control personnel and upgrading equipment as well as the quality of passports and visas (Andreas 2003: 103).

The EU insists that enlargement will not mean ‘new divisions’ and will not lead to a ‘Fortress Europe’ (European Commission 2007). In this sense, in the context of East enlargement, the EU has launched a different policy agenda, which aims to improve the cross-border cooperation with the EU’s new neighbourhood countries and to harmonise a common immigration and asylum system inside the common market. The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was first launched in March 2003 through the EC’s communication ‘Wider Europe – Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours’ and has become the established vehicle for cooperation with these countries across a wide policy spectrum[7]. In addition, since the 1990s, the EU has been trying to set up a common Immigration and Asylum Policy. The Tampere agreement in 1999 created an area of freedom, security and justice for all citizens of the EU by 2004 with a special focus on a managing irregular migration, as well as fighting crime, through police and justice cooperation (Kunz and Leinonen 2007). Finally, the ‘The Hague Programme’ implemented a common EU asylum framework with common procedures and a uniform status for those who are granted asylum and improved the exchange of information through the Schengen Information System[8] (SIS).

Despite the effort of the EU to harmonise its immigration control and to guarantee good relations with its neighbouring countries, a number of problems have emerged. Whilst enlargement should be about inclusion, the hard border regime which is being imposed on candidate countries is about exclusion, ‘about creating and recreating dividing lines in Europe’ (Phuong 2003: 663).

First, candidate countries have to comply with the obligations of cooperation on justice, freedom and security arising from the Schengen agreement before they can benefit from abolition of internal border controls and free movement of persons (Phuong 2003). However, most of the new countries generally do not have the financial and human resources to tackle illegal migration and deal with asylum seekers. As the improvement of border controls has been seen as an essential condition for accession, the EU8 and EU2 countries need to enter the Schengen Information System. As a result, border services need to invest in sophisticated surveillance equipment, which is extremely expensive for these countries (Phuong 2003).

In addition, EU’s strict visa policies raise a number of problems. Most CEE countries had before 2004 visa-free regimes with their Southern and Eastern neighbours. As a result, these countries are reluctant to impose visa requirements on their neighbours, with whom they have often maintained close economic, political and cultural links (Phuong 2003). This undermines local realities, such as ‘primitive mobility’[9] between border regions at the Eastern frontiers of some CEE countries (Pijpers 2007: 823). As a result, local strategies to challenge the Schengen visa system include visa forgery, the use of smugglers or illegal middlemen, and overstay of student or tourist visas (Pijpers 2007). A study about the Bazaar trade in the city region of Lodz in Poland, where both buyers and traders kept coming from Belarus and Ukraine through relatively permeable Eastern border, shows to what extent the Schengen agreement does not take into account these cross-border activities that are primordial for specific sectors of the Polish as well as the Ukrainian and Belarusian economy. The introduction of visa requirements from Belarus and Ukraine after 2004 favours major bazaar traders; the smaller ones have been confronted to impassable barriers and are mainly dying out (Pijpers 2004).

Furthermore, the adoption of the EU asylum aquis presents a range of problems. Indeed, because of their geographical location, the new Member States will be responsible for policing the new Eastern border of the EU and receiving asylum seekers travelling from further East. According to Phuong (2003), the EU member states have two underlying objectives. Firstly, the East enlargement shifts the asylum burden eastwards. It shows to what extent the EU is still under the illusion that efficient border control mechanisms can ensure its internal security (Andreas 2003). Second, the EU’s effort to modify asylum policy in candidate countries is to ensure that these countries do not become too attractive to asylum seekers and to handle the so-called transit migration through the East to Western countries. Despite these efforts, it seems that many CEE countries are not ready yet, and would need efficient rather than accelerated procedures (Phuong 2003: 650). The main problem of the enlarging fortress Europe and the imposition of the hard border regime on the new accession states is that there is a lack of strong guarantees against direct and indirect refoulement. This leads me to the point that exclusion at the edge of the EU means closed doors for non-EU mostly low-skilled labour migrants.

  1. Managing the Skilled and the Unskilled

While there is a strong international competition for qualified and experienced specialists in particular in management, information and communication technologies and in the health sector, there is a general trend in Western European countries to partially fill the demand for low-skilled labour from the labour surpluses of the 10 accession states which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007. As a result, I will show in this section that ‘free’ access to the labour market for CEE countries is less an example of open borders than an element of the current EU migration management strategy.

In order to compete with the US and Canada for highly skilled foreign workers, the rationale of the EU Blue Card is to be more competitive to attract skilled workers as a Union rather than as individual Member States.

Migration management policies have changed radically since 2004. Following enlargement, in 2006, the UK implemented a point-system framework for managing labour of non-European immigrants to the UK. This policy aims to facilitate and simplify policies regulating the immigration and employment of skilled and highly skilled non-Europeans while strictly limiting low-skilled immigration from outside the EU (Anderson et al. 2006). The key features of the UK’s recent policies towards migrant workers from outside the European Economic Area include mainly (i) a focus on selecting skilled and highly skilled migrants and (ii) admitting migrants on a temporary basis with some restrictions of their rights, but with the opportunity to apply for the right to a permanent stay after a certain period (currently 5 years) of residence in the UK (Ruhs 2008a). Similarly German immigration policies facilitate access to the labour market for highly skilled workers through the ‘Green Card’ launched first in 2000 by Chancellor Schröder (Castles 2006). The Zuwanderungsgesetz (immigration law) passed in 2004 facilitates entry by giving migrants the ability to apply immediately for permanent residence. Furthermore the implementation of the EU Blue Card passed in 2008 created a single application for non-EU high skilled workers to reside and work within the EU, which shows to what extent ‘the global war on talent’ has arrived in the EU (Cerna 2008). In order to compete with the US and Canada for highly skilled foreign workers, the rationale of the EU Blue Card is to be more competitive to attract skilled workers as a Union rather than as individual Member States (Collet 2008). However, the proposed European Blue Card system, as a viable immigration policy presents many inconsistencies, because there is a lack of harmonisation among member states.

Besides the implementation of highly skilled programs, there is, in most western EU countries, a phasing-out of low-skilled working schemes from non-EU countries. This is especially remarkable in the UK. Before 2004, there was a complex system of specialised work permits for admitting low-skilled workers: the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme (SAWS), the Domestic Worker Scheme, the Au-Pair Scheme, the Sector Based Scheme (SBS), the Working holiday-makers and the scheme for overseas students. Each of the UK working schemes has been tightened since the first East enlargement in 2004 and shows to what extent the enlargement of the EU has let to a stricter limitation of low-skilled immigration from outside the EU (Anderson et al. 2006). The cost of the East enlargement was the closing down of movement of the Commonwealth (Grove-White 2010). For instance, the integration projects of CEE migrants, such as the Migration Impact Fund in the UK has been paid for by an increase in the visa cost for non-Europeans (Ibid). In addition, Susan Cueva from UNISON (2010) states that there was an incredible change in the service jobs sector and ‘African and Asian workers got replaced by CEE migrants’. This limited nature of labour mobility from outside the EU might also be one reason as to why undocumented entry and employment have become so significant. Although accurate figures do not exist, estimates put the total number of undocumented immigrants in the EU at between 4.1 and 7.3 million – lower than the 11.5 to 12 million in the US but still very significant (Düvell 2005). As a result, the gradual freedom of movement for CEE migrants is responding to the needs of host countries. The regional free-movement agreement inside the EU is another form of temporary migration worker schemes that differentiate between highly skilled and lower-skilled workers and do not guarantee as mutual gains as promised (Castles 2006: 749).  The main argument of circular migration policy, the so-called win-win-win mantra is questioned (Vertovec 2001). The ‘wins’ may not be as mutual as imagined and the argument of circular migration being a magic bullet in migration policy should be approached with caution.

Concluding Remarks 

To summarise, the open borders arguments in the case of the East enlargement is misleading, because it does not equally benefit migrants, sending and receiving countries. The win-win-win argument is biased at the expense of migrants’ economic, political, social and cultural prospects.

First the transitional restrictions undermine economic free movement. Migrants are not able to freely access the labour market and their employment often ends in semi-legal working conditions, where they are locked into situations of high vulnerability, exploitation and low upward mobility.

In addition a lack of political, social and cultural integration results in additional boundaries for migrants, which undermine CEE migrants’ EU citizenship rights. They face not only a lack of political rights such as voting and Trade Union membership, but also do not rely on their equal treatment rights to gain access to social benefits. Furthermore CEE migrants find it difficult to integrate into the host culture due to a lack of  integration projects from the side of receiving countries.

Finally, the rationale for the EU to lift the borders to CEE countries has not been to expand the right of free movement to the East, but rather to control immigration, manage highly skilled workers from outside the EU and address low-skilled labour shortages with CEE migrants. As a result the East enlargement is less a form of open borders than a revival of temporary worker schemes in which migration primarily benefits the host countries.

I conclude that freedom of movement in the context of East enlargement has not been concerned with realising the win-win-win situation open borders policy should ensure. In order to make freedom of movement work for sending countries and especially for migrants themselves, a number of conditions should be met. Therefore I end with my initial quote of Myron Weiner: ‘the moral stance that global justice can be served by a world of open borders in which individuals are free to move wherever they wish presumes a world without borders, without states, without repressive regimes, without vast differences in the health, education and welfare services offered by governing authorities, and without vast differences in incomes and employment. In the absence of these conditions the noble vision becomes a nightmare…’ (Weiner 1996: 177).


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[1]              The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘everybody has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country’. As a result emigration is recognized as a human right but not immigration  (Pécoud & de Guchteneire, 2007).

[2]              Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

[3]              Especially France and the Netherlands wanted to integrate public opinion into the debate of the east enlargement. Their position reflects the failure of the referendum of the Constitutional Treaty in their countries in 2005 (Lavanex and Schimmelfennig, 2007).

[4]              The most widely cited prediction of what would happen after enlargement found that net inflows of EU8 nationals would be between 5,000 and 13,000 annually up until 2010. However in 2003, an estimated 50,000 EU8 nationals were already residing in the UK (Pollard et al. 2008).

[5]              In 2005, a total of 2,600 Poles registered with the Dutch chamber of commerce as self-employed, more than from any other country. They are mostly active in construction, agriculture and cleaning services (Pijpers and Van der Velde, 2007).

[6]              There is a strong suspicion that western European states might be happy to reduce their reliance on non-white immigrants by developing a more internal and regional European labour market (Favell 2008). This is especially true in the context of difficult integration situations such as though exemplified by the 2005 riots in the Parisian suburbs.

[7]              This ENP framework is proposed to the 16 of EU’s closest neighbours – Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Tunisia and Ukraine. Beside economic integration, regional conflict resolutions, political dialogue, sectoral reforms, modernisation and financial cooperation, the main issues of the ENP are mobility and migration management (European Commission 2007).

[8]              Schengen information system (SIS II) is a database of people who have been issued with arrest warrants and of stolen objects to be operational in 2007 (Phuong 2003).

[9]              Primitive migration is defined as shuttle migration to certain places in order to sell products, and staying there for some days before returning home (Pijpers 2007: 823)