And all shall have passports

Even many of the strongest critics of the European Union often applaud its role as a free trade zone. Conversely, even many who are otherwise strong pro-Europeans seem to develop cold feet when confronted with the full reality of another of its main pillars, the free movement of people. The double standard is alive and well.

Arguments about the proper limits of the free movement of people are often in the headlines. Examples include Spain’s dispute with Gibraltar, Italy’s treatment of North African refugees, and Denmark’s border policies. Discussing the last of those cases, I remarked:

It can also play havoc with the politics of the union: Denmark may claim that its problem is with the Arabs and the Russians, not the Poles and Bulgarians (indeed the claim may even be true, after a fashion), but Poland and Bulgaria will be harder to convince.

Now there’s another for the list. Hungary has been giving some grief to its neighbors with a new law that allows people to claim Hungarian citizenship if they have (a) a direct ancestor who was a Hungarian citizen and (b) a basic knowledge of the Hungarian language. Apparently the latter requirement is being leniently interpreted.

Two things make this more controversial than it might sound. One is that substantial chunks of Hungary’s neighbors were, at times in the last century, Hungarian territory. That means that a lot of Serbs, Slovaks, Romanians and Ukrainians are potential claimants, and it may make some of those neighbors worry about whether Hungary’s leaders have really given up the dream of recreating the “Great Hungary” that existed prior to 1920.

The second thing is that since Hungary is in the Schengen zone, citizenship brings an EU passport and the right to travel and work throughout the EU. Poor Serbs may decide to make the move, not because they have any Hungarian national feeling or any ambition to live there, but as a means to migrate to the more prosperous countries of north-western Europe.

Open borders are generally seen as more of a left-wing cause, with opposition coming from the right. But in Hungary it is the right-wing FIDESZ government that made the shift in eligibility: threatened itself by the far-right anti-Semitic Jobbik on its flank, it evidently believed that the move would appeal to nationalist sentiment.

The BBC reports that more than half a million people have taken advantage of the new law since it came into effect at the beginning of 2011, with about 100,000 from Serbia alone.

A popular explanation for the European economic crisis (or at least for its depth, if not its origins) lies in the division of responsibilities between levels. Monetary policy within the eurozone is centrally controlled, but fiscal policy remains in the hands of the individual member countries – making it difficult to co-ordinate the two.

The Hungarian example shows that there’s a similar disconnect in the field of immigration policy. Although there’s a centrally-mandated freedom of movement, the gatekeeper role that determines who gets to take advantage of it is played by the nation-states, enabling them to pass some of the costs on to others.

A common fiscal policy for the EU is still some way off, but at least it’s a project clearly in the works. It might be a while longer before anyone is ready to try for a common citizenship and residence policy.

5 thoughts on “And all shall have passports

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