One of the greatest achievements of European integration is the freedom of movement of people. Europe is not just a market for the free flow of goods, capital and services, but also of people who can move, work, study and buy property abroad. This freedom still needs improving, by supporting rules to recognise education and professional qualifications, by making pension schemes more easily transferable, by cutting red tape and making relocation simpler.
Compared to the US, Europeans are not particularly keen to move from one country to another, but are increasingly doing so, whether in search of better job opportunities, to reunite with mobile and multicultural families, to improve language skills or educational qualifications, or to seek better retirement locations.
In 2013, 8 million Europeans went to work in another country - 3.3 percent of the total labour force. They tend to be young people, economically active, who are not seeking social benefits, with good qualifications, who are employed often in tasks below their qualifications. They should represent a dream solution to beefing up the economic productivity of European countries, yet they are becoming the target of increasingly xenophobic attitudes and public policies which are sweeping across Europe.
The latest episode of xenophobia was the passing of a referendum vote in Switzerland on capping quotas for foreign workers (EU and non-EU alike) backed by a slim majority of 50.3 percent. Switzerland is not a member of the EU but is party to the Schengen agreement, which brought down borders between the European countries signatories to it, giving an extraordinary boost to the freedom of movement. In a country which has 3.5 percent unemployment, the threat of young educated people stealing jobs from the Swiss is really not credible.
In a country which has 3.5 percent unemployment, the threat of young educated people stealing jobs from the Swiss is really not credible.
There is huge consensus backed by research demonstrating that labour mobility in Europe has been good for the economy.
This referendum caused outrage in the EU. The very democratic Switzerland, which puts most decisions in the hands of its citizens, is now proving that direct democracy can be an unhealthy dictatorship of the majority. Even its government in Bern is dismayed. Swiss banks profit on freedom of movement of capital, but its people have rejected its corollary principle of freedom of movement of people. Indeed, the EU may well respond arguing that quotas and preferential treatment of citizens are in breach of the various legal agreements between the EU and Switzerland.
But it is also clear that this tide is not limited to mountainous, wealthy and insulated Switzerland. A wave of populist and xenophobic discontent is sweeping through Europe. The outcome of the referendum was welcomed by a number of growing anti-immigration parties, from Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN), that has always been openly racist, to Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party (UKIP), which covers up its xenophobia with Euroscepticism.
Impact on European politics
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Slovakia and the UK all have extremist parties which are likely to make it to the European Parliament when elections are held in May. How this will impact European politics is a big question in Brussels today.
But in the meantime, some European citizens have already suffered. Romanians and Bulgarians have recently suffered from xenophobic attitudes in Western Europe. Not only has the tabloid press in the UK pushed smear campaigns against them, but also goverments have proposed initiatives to limit welfare benefits and access to health to new arrivals in their countries
Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007 but were obliged to enforce a transitional period before their citizens could work freely across the EU. This period ended on January 1, 2014. In view of that date, throughout 2013 there were a number of proposed initiatives aiming at restricting the free movement of EU citizens in Europe.These ranged from reducing the access to social benefits of third country nationals to proposing selective freedom of movement only to certain categories of highly skilled workers.
Croatia, which joined the EU in July 2013, will see its transition period end in a few months, and with European Parliament elections coming up, it is likely that this issue will dominate public debates for some time.
What is striking is not so much the existence of extremist parties, but the success they have had in shaping the public debate and in getting mainstream parties to follow their campaigns, especially in Britain, the centre of the anti-Romanian and Bulgarian storm. None of the evidence backs the extremist arguments: There are only 95,000 Romanians in the UK in contrast to over one million in Italy and 860,000 in Spain. According to research by the national Trade Union Centre, four percent of British nationals claim unemployment benefits, and only one percent of non-Britons do. University College London research proved that between 2001 and 2011 non-British Europeans contributed 34 percent more in taxes than they benefited.
The consequences of this public debate and populist drive are multiple and potentially far reaching, if the tide of xenophobia is not stopped. It undermines freedom of movement of people, which remains one of the greatest achievements in Europe. With dwindling trust in the EU, targeting its citizens' freedoms would alienate those who support it. Freedom to circulate also gives meaning to the ordinary citizens of what European integration is about, and is one of the values which is admired around the world.
Also, if citizens of Bulgaria and Romania continue to be targeted, this could lead to backlashes in their countries, where Roma communities can be accused of being the cause of the stigmatisation of all Romanians and Bulgarians. Indeed, the Roma community, frequently deported from Western Europe, are the prime victim of this debate.
More broadly, it is worrying that mainstream parties, concerned about opinion polls, tabloid front pages, and short-term political gains are taking on the arguments of extremist parties which construe their positions on fear. Xenophobic-led debates might be becoming "the new normal", revealing the poverty of politics in Europe today.
Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.