The history of the European Union can be described in several ways: from the UK perspective it has tended to be presented as an overlapping series of trade agreements giving access to a single market, culminating in the present arrangements set out in the Lisbon Treaty.
But in other nations it has been perceived as a project to work together for the achievement of common goals for Europe’s people, principally among them peaceful co-existence, and a guarantee that the horrors of the Second World War will never happen again.
Merging the two perspectives gives us a description of the EU as a project to guarantee the right of all citizens of the 28 EU Member States to enjoy freedom of movement across the union, to enjoy the right to live and work anywhere in the EU and be treated as a national of that country and, in short, to enjoy the hospitality of other member states in a spirit of international solidarity.
Of course the UK has declined to join the Schengen Area as regards making borderless travel a reality across much of Europe. The current Government decided to use transition measures for the most recent enlargements for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens and this will also apply to Croatians. This is in marked contrast to the UK’s previous Labour Government’s decision to be one of only three countries not to apply transition measures for the so-called A-8 countries (the Maltese and Cypriots were never subject to transition measures). We did, however, apply certain conditions on welfare benefits, which have since seen the UK referred to the European Court of Justice on a number of questions.
A two-way path
Nonetheless, hospitality is a well-trodden path. The London region I represent in the European Parliament, for example, is home to more than one million non-UK EU citizens – that’s more than 10% of the region’s total population. Recent figures from the UK Parliament suggest there are about half a million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU.
They’re not all employed either; there are thousands of older people receiving social care and health services, thousands of children in local schools, many people running their own businesses, and so on.
Of course this represents a major migrant population, and one that has experienced significant problems: at a recent discussion of these issues to mark the European Year of Citizens it became clear that these problems have tended to focus on access to housing and work permits, as well as access to benefits. The right to vote in elections for national governments is also a growing question, as the current European Citizens’ Initiative Letmevote demonstrates. We must sort these problems out to make hospitality a reality, and I try to do exactly that where my authority as an MEP allows. I have, after all, spent ten years in the European Parliament working on the updating of the Co-ordination of Social Security Regulation, amongst other things.
Not just laws on the book
But hospitality isn’t just a legal issue concerned with access to public services – it’s about people’s attitudes too, and the question of ‘what kind of Europe do we want to live in’ and on this measure the UK has rather more work to do.
As the economic ‘crisis’ has resulted in spending cuts, austerity measures, and rising unemployment, more people in the UK (and indeed across the EU) have reached the clumsy and erroneous conclusion that it is international migration, rather than any regulatory failure in the banking and finance industries, that is to blame. This in turn has helped foster the development of xenophobic nationalism (just look, for example, at the recent electoral success enjoyed by Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece). Populist parties have also followed an anti-immigration agenda: the UK Independence Party here in Britain and the so-called Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, have targeted the right of EU nationals to freedom of movement and created the view that hospitality should be viewed as something which either benefits or harms UK or Dutch citizens, rather than as something to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their nationality.
What kind of Europe
For example, I was recently vilified in some elements of the UK’s right-wing press for suggesting that the EU should require member states to maintain spending on care for vulnerable groups wherever in the EU they came from. ‘How does that benefit us?’ seemed to be the implied question – a question not far from many people’s lips right across the EU.
Of course, the answer lies in the question I posed earlier: ‘What kind of Europe do we want to live in?’ I believe strongly that we want to live in an EU with the ideas of hospitality and international solidarity at its core; an EU run for its people, not for the companies they operate.
The post-austerity question of how increased hospitality benefits ‘us’ is turned on its head: it benefits ‘us’ because ‘we’ are ‘they’ – a single, diverse, population of some half a billion people all offering each other hospitality, all enjoying a fundamental set of rights and freedoms, a clean environment and all having a stake in the economic benefits of our common efforts. The concept of hospitality works two ways: we offer our hospitality to citizens of other EU states in return for them offering the same hospitality to us. The half a million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU understand this all too well.
Hospitality beyond Europe’s borders
But that sense of hospitality is not only for those holding a passport from an EU Member State. We must ensure that the European Union really develops a Common Asylum System which gives protection to those in need. We should not close our borders to those who wish to be part of our society, while doing all we can to ensure that the demands and policies of the EU do not drive people into poverty and push them to leave their homes. The reality of climate change means we must open our eyes to the consequences for us and for others in terms of where we might have to go.
So I see the EU as a project to enhance a sense of hospitality and make it a reality for all of us. Of course, there are many difficult issues to address in making hospitality real: Where will everyone live? How do we ensure that people don’t migrate to the richest areas of the EU? How do we ensure that we all pay equally for the costs of accessing public services, health and social care, benefits and state-funded pensions? How do we defend diversity, preserve cultural differences and guarantee freedom of religion? How do we share equally in the economic and social benefits of hospitality?
These are some of the most pressing questions facing the EU today, and they have become larger and more urgent as a result of the current economic crisis – but we mustn’t shy away from them. That’s why my work as an MEP has tended to focus on developing and enhancing rules for cross-border benefit management, for access to care in a post-austerity EU, for common standards in the workplace, and so on.
Resolving some of these tricky questions will help break down some the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which prevails across so much of the EU today. It will help make the rights of citizens and access to the freedoms which introduce the Treaties and lie at the heart of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a reality. In short, it will help deliver an EU based on the principle of hospitality, of sharing – a Europe that puts its people first. That’s the kind of EU I want to live in.