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Migration: Freedom, Control, and Resilience

New blueprint for the EU freedom of movement
Copyright: yuriz

by Jakub Bijak

Full control over international migration is an illusion, not only in the context of large-scale refugee crises. There is large inertia in social, economic, political and legal processes underpinning migration, next to the vested interests of various actors, institutions, and sectors of the economy. That makes migration difficult to control in the short run, even if there is a will to do so.

For example, in 2015 in the United Kingdom the balance of migration from outside of the European Union (+188,000 people) was higher than from the EU countries (+184,000), despite many controls in place for non-EU migrants.

The principle of unconditional freedom of movement can sometimes be problematic, too. The EU does not have an effective internal mechanism to respond to migration pressures caused by short-term social or economic stresses, even temporarily. On the one hand, spreading risks and absorbing shocks is easier across larger markets and populations. On the other hand, in some cases – especially in the short run, in some specific areas, or for some social groups – migration can exacerbate the already existing tensions. There is a need for a mechanism, which would aim at reducing such pressures in the short run, by specifying conditions for intra-EU migrations in response to extraordinary situations.

There exists a blueprint for such a solution. The Schengen agreement, which governs cross-border mobility in much of continental Europe, includes provisions for “temporarily reintroduction of border control at the internal borders”, wherever “there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security.”[1] As of June 2016, this mechanism has been invoked nearly 60 times, in various countries, for periods up to several months. Similar arrangements could apply to migration, empowering the member states to react to exceptional short-term social, political or economic stresses, whilst remaining adherent to the freedom of movement principle as the long-term default.

Three key elements are necessary for such a system to work: political will, accountability, and information exchange. The political will is essential, and it should not be based on false promises of control, but on a political consensus as to what the emergency instruments are intended to achieve – a slowing down of migration to help deal with specific issues. Accountability should include clear criteria for the implementation and removal of additional conditions, mechanisms for overseeing them and for ensuring their temporary nature and preventing moral hazard related to their use.

Finally, as in the case of the Schengen agreement, there is also a need for a mechanism of information exchange on migration. An important element of such a system could involve for example a single EU-wide population register, providing timely indicators of migration flows and their possible impacts, as opposed to the current patchwork of inconsistent data collection mechanisms across Europe, some of which are clearly not suitable to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

A possibility of adding temporary conditions for some intra-EU mobility is a pragmatic way of defending the key principle of the freedom of movement through allowing compromise interventions in the short term. As such, it will help maintain the fine balance between freedom and security in Europe, while making the European economies and societies more resilient in the longer perspective.


[1] Schengen Borders Code; Art. 23–31,Regulation (EC) 562/2006, OJ L 105, 13.4.2006, p. 1–32.


About the author:

Jakub Bijak, Associate Professor in Demography, University of Southampton/UK.

— This post is in collaboration with Public Policy|Southampton and was also published on the blog “Views on Europe“.—