Europe’s Movement Against Moving

PRINCETON – The largest unresolved issue in the European Union is mobility. The integration process was intended to make it easier and more attractive for Europeans to move from one country to another. According to this vision, the EU’s inhabitants had the nation to lose and a continent to gain. But some recent election results indicate that they are more worried about losing the nation.

Ever since the 1986 Single European Act removed restrictions on working in other member countries, the continent has been a single labor market – at least in theory. It was a policy that fit well with other parts of the integration agenda. The euro’s ability to function as a common currency would require a flexible labor market, in which workers could adjust to regional shocks by moving.

But it was only after the global financial crisis that European migration really took off. And the result has been a backlash against it, first in destination countries, and now, as Poland’s just-concluded presidential election suggests, in countries of origin. As the debate over migration has heated up, both those who moved and those who stayed behind have ended up feeling more nationalistic, not more European.

At first glance, the results of recent elections in France and England might give the impression that European migration is on the wane as a hot-button issue. The French National Front did badly in regional elections compared to the mainstream and pro-European right. It then descended into scandal and acrimonious infighting between the party’s president, Marine Le Pen, and its founder, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen (who was ultimately expelled).