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Looking back to see beyond: Rediscovering empowering historical legacies on the EU’s Free Movement of Persons

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‘A movement in the opposite direction,

free of inconsiderate ambitions.’

Harry Martinson

The value of historical inquiry to address contemporary migration and asylum policies has been neglected for long. That results in a harmful disregard of the empowering rediscovery of our common human mobility rights’ legacies, so full of potential to unlock ground-breaking approaches to present obstacles. This is the case of past European integration initiatives and proposals, which are generally ignored when undertaking the current challenges to the European Union’s Free Movement of Persons (FMP). However, such legacy could even be considered a fundamental intangible heritage, as well as a solid, retroactively innovative and paradigmatically transnational foothold.


This piece advocates our need to ‘look back’ in order to ‘see beyond’ by unveiling overlooked historical archives, players and actions in this realm. Indeed, structurally conditioning elements and aborted proposals (‘roads not taken’) can be powerful sources of inspiration for the essential policy area of human mobility rights, linked to what Stephanie DeGooyer, Alastair Hunt and Lida Maxwell define as a most basic ‘right to have rights’.


Critical historical analysis sheds light on actors’ motivations, strategies and discourses; the meaning and insights of a given context; the implications of its causal links; the interdependences between memories and present directions; and the possibility of comparing distant, yet conceptually related, case studies. In this respect, it is important to ask why critical historical analysis would be helpful for the above-indicated endeavours. Firstly, because changing attitudes towards human mobility rights illustrate more profound societal changes to be taken into account from an evidence-based policy-making perspective. Secondly, such approach provides timely and essential tools to interpret new conceptions of inclusiveness in a globally interconnected society. Thirdly, it can help bridging research outputs and global governance objectives by clarifying the links between particular turning points and resulting contexts.


When applied to policymaking, critical historical analysis can also improve our understanding of the intertwined factors conditioning EU borders, membership and belonging, as explored by Roberto G. Gonzales and Nando Sigona. Moreover, it would help us build well-researched countermeasures to the increasing poverty and discrimination of mobile populations, as well as ways of globally fostering a sustainable social solidarity. Also, by examining past projects on historically evolving migration policies and their effects on the political assimilation of third-country nationals, we could improve the modalities of the progressive Europeanisation of immigrants’ integration, as Roxana Barbulescu points out. Plus, since the social integration of migrant and refugee populations is a crucial issue of global concern, more critical attention could be paid to understanding how the EU’s FMP as a ‘fourth freedom’ is crashing under the weight of ever-growing social inequalities, as Adrian Favell advocates. Given the primacy of economic integration over its more socio-political dimensions, the EU’s FMP has been denominated the ‘fourth freedom’ due to its relegation to the other three Schengen Area freedoms of movement: of capital, goods, and services. In this respect, Adrian Favell’s proposed shift of focus could lead the way to promote sustainable models of upward social mobility. In short, critical historical analysis would decisively aid to reconfigure profoundly unsettled human mobility rights.

A paradigmatic observatory for such undertaking can be found at the European Parliament (EP)’s archival records on the changing modes of implementation of the EU’s FMP. Indeed, EP decision-makers distinctively searched for a balance between Single Market priorities and the preeminence of the FMP as an end in itself within the European integration process. For instance, EP representatives denounced how the aims of the internal market intended to overshadow the defence of democratic rights and freedoms per se. Accordingly, the EP’s influence was reflected in the June 1986 Solemn Declaration by the three Institutions, centred on combating all forms of discrimination, racism or xenophobia. This was echoed by MEP Roy Perry (EPP-GB), who emphasised the insecurity, xenophobia, old age and urban deprivation challenges, which ‘could not be ignored in the process of developing an area without internal frontiers’. [1] Furthermore, EP discussions on the nascent concept of a ‘Citizens’ Europe’ stressed ‘the value of the contribution made by immigrants to the building of a multinational and multicultural European society’. [2]

Looking back at the first Gulf War, we can observe a striking contrast between present and past ethical considerations with regard to refugees fleeing conflict and war: 

The EP hopes that the Gulf war will not be used as a pretext for harsher external border controls not justified on grounds of security. [3]

Such understanding was also linked to a recognition of human mobility rights as key means to enrich community building. As MEP Dagmar Roth (V-DE) indicated, the objective was:


a co-existence in which all those who live here and work here are granted the same rights. That is not an exaggeration, but the foundation of democracy. [4]


MEP Dagmar Roth also then referred to the threat of normalising the overriding of human mobility rights by unbalancing liberty in favour of security and by surrendering to a primacy of economic integration:


Human rights are universal and immutable. The right of asylum, the right to live with one's family, the right to move about, the international conventions, are not to be interpreted in one way for a period of economic expansion and another for a time of recession. [5]


MEP Aline Pailler (GUE/NGL-FR) also offered one of the finest definitions of 'Fortress Europe' within the examined EP debates:


I am opposed to the creation of this 'Fortress Europe', which in enhancing its own security remains deaf to the appeals of the victims of repression and poverty; this discriminatory Europe, in which money is free to circulate, while men and women are unable to cross the frontiers of fear and indifference. [6]

MEP Mohamed Alí (GUE/NGL-ES) equally stressed the key concept of the 'socio-cultural integration of immigrants' while denouncing how the foundational principles of European integration were being co-opted, at best, if not directly eliminated:

In this Schengen area that is being created, there should be a clause making it possible to implement common policies on the socio-cultural integration of immigrants, avoiding any discrimination against people or groups due to race, colour or religion or due to national, social or ethnic orientation. [7]

The EU’s FMP is considered – as Claus Offe puts it – as one of the most meaningful, and also the most popular accomplishments ever of European integration. This socially recognised achievement could be mirrored by an EU which acts, primarily, as an ethically committed political player constantly bringing up the human rights, solidarity and social cohesion dimensions of the European integration process. As we witness a reverse of such developments, critical historical analysis could reignite a commitment to reestablish a decisive dialogue between citizens and institutions, determined to supersede growingly toxic sociopolitical cleavages. Indeed, this pivotal viewpoint could trace back key EU principles to rekindle the transformative power of policy innovation and lead to positive societal impact: ‘A movement in the opposite direction, free of inconsiderate ambitions.’

Notes and references: 

[1] EP debates on a motion for a resolution by Mrs Veil and others on the ‘People's Europe’, No 2-368, p. 51. OJC 674/88, 13/08/1988.


[2] Motion for a Resolution of the EP on the ‘Citizen's Europe’, OJC 497/88262, 13/09/1988, pp. 40-41.

[3] Motion for a Resolution of the EP on the ‘Schengen Agreement’, OJC 0086/91, 14/02/1991. 

[4] EP debates on ‘Immigration’, 15/07/1993 pp. 150-165.

[5] Ibid.

[6] EP debates on ‘Schengen and the right of asylum’, No 4-461, 06/06/1995, pp. 202-206.

[7] Ibid.

Photo 1 - Dr. Cristina Blanco Sío-López.
Dr Cristina Blanco Sío-López

Dr Cristina Blanco Sío-López is Assistant Professor in European Culture and Politics at the University of Groningen. From September 2019 she will be EU Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Senior Global Fellow and Principal Investigator (PI) of the research project ‘Navigating Schengen: Historical Challenges and Potentialities of the EU’s Free Movement of Persons, 1985-2015’ (NAVSCHEN) at the European Studies Center (ESC) – EU Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence (JMEUCE) of the University of Pittsburgh for the next two years, to then join the Ca' Foscari University of Venice.  She previously was Santander Senior Fellow at the European Studies Centre (ESC) – St. Antony’s College of the University of Oxford, where she remains a Senior Member. She obtained her PhD in History and Civilization (European Integration History) at the European University Institute of Florence (EUI), for which she received the FAEY Best PhD Thesis European Research and Mobility Award 2008.


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