Why free movement of people is the most important freedom of all

About 40 years ago, my father left everything behind in Malaysia in the hope of a better life in Europe, preferably Germany, or if that did not work out, the United Kingdom. In the 1970s, Malaysia was not economically thriving yet, and many people lived in extreme poverty. As did my father; his father died when he was twelve and his mother was barely capable of taking care of him and his six younger siblings. Meat was a rare luxury. After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother failed to pay the school fees (my father, being a Christian, attended a Christian school), and her children were beaten at school for this.

My father wanted a better life and traveled to Germany. It was an adventurous journey, being a stowaway in a boat, hitchhiking and walking through India, Iran and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, at this time Europe was no longer enjoying the economic boom of the 1960s, and it had pulled up the drawbridges. Since my father was not in any danger, but only wanted to escape poverty, it was decided he did not have the right to move to Germany. Or to the UK for that matter, where he went next. Fortunately, he met the woman who was to become my mother in Belgium and she and her parents pulled some strings, they got married, and about six years later, he became a proud Belgian citizen. They are still together.

What moral basis do we have for closing our borders for people who seek opportunities? Especially if those people are net contributors to the economy? As Alex Tabarrok says “What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?” I do not think there are any grounds for closing borders. But I also realize that the global demolition of borders and visas is a distant dream.

However, the single EU market with its free movement of people is some step in that direction. It offers people the freedom to move where they can find opportunity. It offers them the opportunity to “vote with their feet”, as Tabarrok says. There are many potential obstacles when we try to accomplish things. One of the most important ones of these is the luck (or bad luck) of the social and geographical location of our birth. Thanks to the free movement of people, EU citizens have at least one element that they can partly control: they can live where they can find the best opportunity to study, work, start their own business, and in this way, reach their full potential.

It saddens me the UK is now contemplating some scheme to curb migration at all costs, or at least to curb the free movement of people while trying to retain the free movement of goods, services, and capital. Those three other movements are important to keep the economy going, and so they have received the most attention. If the UK loses that access to goods, services, and capital, the economic consequences would be disastrous.

The free movement of people is the movement of small players, of ordinary people, not just of big businesses. Of people like my father, who (against all odds) settled in Belgium, worked there for nearly forty years as a construction worker, and raised two daughters who both went on to get PhDs. And it’s the free movement of people like me, a Belgian citizen who could move to the UK to take up a postdoc position at Oxford University, and now a senior lectureship at Oxford Brookes, without needing visas, NHS health surcharges, counting the days I can be out of the country and wondering if I would be allowed back in, and so on (I have several friends who are not EU citizens working in the UK. It is no picnic for them).

Therefore, I would argue that if one values freedom in any real sense of the term, the freedom of movement is the most important, the most cherished freedom of the four freedoms of the European Union. We would be giving up something of great value.