Europe is falling out of love with open borders

In six months' time Europe goes to the polls with the unsettling but unsurprising expectation of a deluge of support for extreme right parties and for Ukip – the extreme free market party (for everything except people). This inevitability stems from the austerity or austerity-lite policies of the ruling right, left and centre that worsen the economic insecurity of the majority. Another huge political turn-off for most Europeans is the political establishment's view that the uncontrolled flow of citizens across its border is an unchallengeable force of EU nature, akin to gravity. Watch electoral support for the establishment crumble further after 1 January as the public responds to the predicted increase of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.

The usual UK response to this grim state of affairs is for those in the Westminster bubble to call for a referendum on whether it would be more efficient in market terms to be inside Europe, or outside it. Big business champions the former, Ukip the latter, with pro- or anti-EU politicians affirming that their way is the route to a nirvana of increased international competitiveness and booming exports. Of course, some try to have it both ways by claiming that we can win this game with a canny "race-to-the-top" approach to wages and conditions. To such fantasists there is a one-word answer: "Grangemouth". The unions and workers were crushed, as will always be the case, by the threat from big business to relocate. This has been allowed to become such a potent trump card because all major political parties support open markets.

To really turn the EU from its present job-destroying, socially divisive and environmentally damaging trajectory will require a continent-wide debate, backed up by a referendum, about whether European member states should be allowed to protect and rediversify their national economies. This would mean returning to the nation state the power to control the flow of goods, money, services and people at their borders. Such a grouping of countries would need to work co-operatively to tackle cross-border issues such as climate change, pollution and crime.

Europe is a powerful enough bloc to implement such a radical programme. It is likely to find increasing support from a populous fast falling out of love with open borders, particularly if the politically active start to campaign for it. Policies such as "site here to sell here", and "invest here to prosper here", would see off the threat of relocation. Indeed, its explicit rejection of competitiveness and export-led growth could be a beacon for other countries. It could encourage them to reorientate their national economic priorities for the benefit of the majority of their inhabitants and hence lessen the need for migration.

The lightning rod to force public discussion of these changes is the resentment felt by the majority over Brussels' diktat of the impossibility of halting the free flow of people within Europe. Ukip does well not because people are bothered about Europe per se, but because Nigel Farage can correctly say that if the UK left the EU it could take back control of immigration. The centre and left have an aversion to discussing the democratic deficit inherent in the denial of the majority's desire for stricter immigration control. They also ignore the justified and familiar call that "we were never asked" whether permanent, large-scale migration within the EU was what "we" wanted.

The usual use of obvious statistics showing that fit, young, ambitious immigrants pay more taxes and use fewer public services holds less sway than more tangible local examples of the pressure new eastern European families are putting upon already overstretched maternity wards and infant schools. Immigration, though usually good for the migrants concerned, is a bosses' charter. Those with the upper hand range from owners of big food processing, care or hospitality companies to those in the middle classes cooing about how polite, hardworking and reasonably priced the eastern European workers are.

Of course, achieving such a huge U-turn on our continent will take time. The expected triumph of the extreme right and extreme free traders in six months' time must finally wake us up to the need to put border controls and economic security at the heart of the debates about future alternatives. Next May the centre left will experience a self-inflicted defeat that they will then be forced to face up to – and not before time.

Colin Hines is the author of the Compass Thinkpiece Progressive Protectionism: The Only Effective Challenge to Neoliberalism.

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