Immigration and citizenship: is there a future for free movement?

Saturday 20 October, 13:3014:45, University of Zurich, 71 Rämistrasse, 8006 ZürichBattle of Ideas Europe


This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Zurich

European countries have recently become convulsed by debates over immigration, freedom of movement and the implications this presents for citizenship. In Germany, opinion was split on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow a major influx of Syrian refugees. While many welcomed her humanitarian stance, others saw it as reckless and irresponsible and amidst the intense debate on immigration that ensued, Merkel’s CDU party was hit by an electoral backlash. Issues related to immigration have also been prominent in elections in France, Italy and Sweden, to name but a few. In Italy, the new coalition government prioritised reducing immigration, with interior minister and League party leader, Matteo Salvini, banning NGO ships operated by humanitarian groups from landing rescued migrants and refugees in Italy.

In addition to fortifying the external borders of Europe, many now argue for an end to freedom of movement within Europe. Some EU countries in the once borderless Schengen area have reintroduced border controls. In July, the Swiss People’s Party, main organisers of  a campaign to limit mass immigration into Switzerland, collected the 100,000 signatures required to ensure a referendum on whether to retain the agreement between the EU and Switzerland on free movement of people. In addition to restricting movement, some countries are introducing new laws which place restrictions on the freedom of many immigrants. Bans on wearing face veils in public have already been enacted in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Austria and Denmark. Indeed, the Danish government has recently gone further, forcing children living in ‘ghetto’ neighbourhoods containing large numbers of migrants to take lessons on democracy and equality, as well as traditions such as Christmas.

Some have blamed ‘populist’ campaigns and movements for stoking prejudice against migrants. However, although there are elements of prejudice in some anti-immigrant views, many argue that there are also legitimate concerns about the scale of immigration in recent years. At a time of austerity in public services and wages, they say rapid population increases in particular areas have resulted in unsustainable pressures on local health, education and social services. Others point to the public’s concerns about culture and national identity. Against those who champion freedom of movement as an economic necessity and a human right, some complain of the dramatic changes caused by immigration to which many long-standing citizens did not consent.

Last year for the first time, the number of foreign-born people living in Switzerland reached two million for the first time, accounting for nearly a quarter of the population. In Geneva canton, 42.1 per cent of people live without a Swiss passport. Some argue this is an unnecessary bureaucratic burden. Others deride hollow, glorified visa arrangements that confer none of the democratic rights and obligations usually associated with a ‘citizen’. Consequently, it is becoming harder for politicians to sell the benefits of immigration, with even oft-mentioned references to the economic benefits of migration taking a back seat to issues of culture and assimilation.

How should we view immigration today? Is there still a case to be made for a more open, liberal approach to immigration, or have European publics swung immovably to the right on this issue? What is the relationship between citizenship and migration? What rights, obligations and privileges should countries confer on non-citizens? Who is and who can become a citizen?