By Luke Gittos
I believe in open borders. There's no reason why we should restrict people’s right to move freely, wherever they choose. Preventing people doing that can have serious and inhumane consequences.
However, I've become increasingly uncomfortable arguing for open borders, particularly following the official and public response to the migrant crisis. The cause has been harmed by two important dynamics which have developed in recent months. First, the overly emotional and highly moralised response to the refugee crisis among sections of the public, the British media and the British government. And second, the undermining of national sovereignty at the level of the European Union.
On the face of it, the compassionate response by the British and other European publics to the plight of the migrants has been heartening. The photograph of Aylan Kurdish, a young Syrian child whose body had been washed up on European shores, brought the treacherous journey taken by migrants across the Mediterranean – a journey which had already killed over 3,000 people in 2014 and 20,000 in the last two decades – to public attention.
Newspapers were suddenly unanimous in their calls for David Cameron to let more migrants cross our borders. Twitter responded with two similarly preachy hashtags emerging: #migrantlivesmatter and #humanitywashedup. A swell of grassroots movements formed to transport goods to the migrant camp at Calais. Politicians suddenly began bending over backwards to be seen to be helping migrants, with some even offering up rooms in their own homes. It was as though the entire media and political establishment suddenly appeared to be for open borders, even though many of them had been the most vocal advocates of border controls in the past.
While much of this activism by the public demonstrated the basic humanity of those involved, the response to the migrants quickly developed into a forum for ethical posturing. Comparisons were drawn between Syrian refugees and the Jews fleeing the holocaust, with many proclaiming that Britain was under a similar 'moral obligation' to act. Sharing the images of fleeing families and dead children became a gesture of moral acceptability. Either you accepted that 'migrant lives matter' and that therefore we should let more migrants in, or you were simply inhumane.
The outpouring of compassion did nothing to alter public attitudes in the UK around immigration. In fact, by simply proclaiming that 'migrants lives matter' rather than making any substantive case in favour of freer borders, many of the commentators around the crisis implicitly demonised those who harboured legitimate concerns about welcoming the migrants. The British public have remained skeptical about increasing immigration in the UK throughout recent months, as they have been for the best part of the last decade, citing concerns about employment and the impact on their community. They are unlikely to be convinced by bland assertions like 'migrant lives matter' or emotive imagery. This does not make them heartless or uncaring, it merely means that they think seriously about the potential impact of immigration on their day to day lives.
The unthinking emotional response to the crisis has been matched by the unthinkingly bureaucratic response of the European Union. The EU has used the crisis to undermine national sovereignty to such an extent that the poorer countries of the Union have to go to great lengths to exercise basic democratic control over their populaces. In late September, the EU finally confirmed its quota programme to effectively force countries to take on a share of migrants. The quotas were voted through by majority. Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary all objected to being forced to accommodate more migrants and the Slovakian government has indicated they would challenge the system in the European Court of Justice.
While poorer countries struggle to assert themselves against the tyranny of the European majority, the leaders of rich countries chastise them for failing to keep up. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said "diversity was the future of the world and Eastern Europeans must-have to get used to it". Angela Merkel and Barack Obama have called on European governments – i.e those poor governments who had failed to toe the line – to do more. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been outspoken in his criticism of the quota system and has been repeatedly summoned to Brussels to explain his country’s apparent unwillingness to cooperate with the EU’s plans. Can we really expect countries like Hungary and Poland to be happy about opening their borders if their people have had absolutely no say over the decision to do so?
If moralising and elite bullying is what constitutes the open borders argument today then it will end up taking us further away from greater freedom of movement. If we are serious about open borders we have to be serious about the conditions which could allow freedom of movement to flourish. People need a strong sense of their own civic identity before they can be expected to respond positively to large numbers of people joining their community. This requires people to feel democratically empowered to make the decision to open borders for themselves. Merely thrusting great change onto national populations is a recipe for instability, not a progressive step towards genuine internationalism.
The open borders argument must move away from mindless emotionalism and bureaucracy. Otherwise, the cause will become hostage to unelected European elites and a force against national sovereignty and democracy.
Luke Gittos is a solicitor and legal writer based in London. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival on 17-18 October at London’s Barbican. Politics.co.uk are media partners for the ‘Everyday Liberties’ strand
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