Why Nations Need to Control Their Borders

Slovenian soldiers set up wire barriers
Slovenian soldiers set up wire barriers in the village Gibina, Slovenia on November 11, 2015. Though an EU member, Slovenia started to prevent migrants entering the country. Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters

Free movement is a cornerstone of European Union membership. Under the bloc’s laws, all EU nations have to allow EU citizens through their borders. From March 2015 to March 2016, an estimated 270,000 EU citizens migrated to the U.K. and recent figures show there are now 2.23 million EU workers in the country.

Some people champion this free movement, others rail against it. But the striking feature of this most significant of public policies is that by making it a requirement of joining the EU, it is beyond political control.

The EU has taken border management away from politicians and placed it at the mercy of market forces. In doing so, it has enabled governments to avoid the expense of properly training a domestic workforce and may have benefited employers and affluent members of society who have access to a ready supply of (mostly) cheap labor.

But an influx of EU workers has many more negatives than positives. It can cause resentment from those who experience wage compression, job losses, an overheated housing market and overcrowded schools and hospitals. The existence of parallel and often transient communities can weaken community cohesion. And the economy suffers when cheap labor becomes an easy substitute for productivity increases.

Although accepting free movement has always been a requirement of EU membership, it only became an issue in recent years. In 2004, the bloc expanded to include eight central and eastern European countries—opening the U.K.’s borders to a large pool of workers.

At the time, there was little debate about these new members joining. This meant that people who favored the policy did not have to win public support for it. Moreover, in the absence of a need to win popular backing, the advocates of free movement often resorted to a subtle form of abuse by dismissing people who objected to it as backward-looking and morally suspect.  

Supporters of free movement, on the other hand, often saw themselves as open-minded and morally virtuous. During the 2010 general election, the then-U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was overheard dismissing a Labour voter as a “bigoted woman” after she questioned him about eastern European immigrants coming to the U.K. Brown’s comment captured the elite contempt that had informed free movement thinking for many years. It was the politics of, “if you can’t convince them, abuse them.”

This ended when campaigning began ahead of the EU referendum on June 23, when free movement advocates were forced to try and justify their stance. They couldn’t, and the referendum left people who supported staying in the EU exposed as unable to address voters’ concerns on immigration.

One poll suggested that a third of Leave voters backed leaving the EU as it “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” This was the second biggest motivation for Leave voters (the first was that decisions about the U.K. should be taken in the U.K.)  

After losing the referendum, Will Straw, who oversaw the Remain campaign, admitted that the cause of his side’s defeat was that “immigration was snuffing out our opportunity to talk about the economy.” This problem was known to Remain supporters before June 23 but they had no arguments to deploy. To this day people in favor of free movement have been unable to articulate a persuasive argument in support of it. The argument that those who seek border controls are backward-looking, racist or xenophobic merely serves to expose people who say it as unable to connect with vast swathes of ordinary British people.

In a sense it is surprising that mature Western democracies ever agreed to hand border control over to market forces. For centuries, states viewed their right to control their borders as axiomatic, as one of the core rights that any sovereign nation should have. Advocates of European integration, however, have long since realized that their supra-national project requires them to undermine the nation and the popular loyalty it engenders.

The president of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, put it succinctly in August when he claimed that “borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians.” His condemnation was based on a broader hostility towards the idea of the nation state and the people who seek to defend it. “We have to fight against nationalism,” he said, “we have the duty not to follow populists but to block the avenue of populists.”

When used by the advocates of European integration “populism” is a tag used to dismiss as morally backward those who believe in the nation state. It is how the EU elites, with no voters to consult, feel able to abuse the people of EU-member countries.

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, followed up Juncker’s remarks on October 13 by relating the formation of the EU to the perceived evils of the nation state. “I do not need to remind you that the creation of the European Union was a response to a historic catastrophe,” Tusk said. He went on to say that “national egoisms,” which the EU seeks to restrict, were the cause of this.  

Tusk then said that the task facing European leaders was stark. “Either we demonstrate that we are able to defend our interests, or the political winners will again be the populists and isolationists,” he said. This isn’t subtle and it isn’t clever but it highlights the EU elites’ detachment from ordinary people.

Those who advocate free movement know they cannot win popular support for it. It is an argument that plays well only with an elite and narrow strata of Western society that finds it easier to abuse ordinary people than to engage with them. By leaving the EU the U.K. now has an opportunity to end free movement and to strike a blow for that axiomatic right of the nation: the right to control its borders.

Jon Holbrook is a barrister who will be speaking on the panel Immigration: what is the future of free movement? at the Battle of Ideas on October 22. Follow him on Twitter @JonHolb.