Upholding freedom of movement in a post-lockdown world

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Assya Kavrakova
Assya Kavrakova

Executive Director of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS)

The Great Lockdown has given rise to serious concerns about the future of our democracies, notably in terms of freedom of movement. The backbone of the European project and key to its economic success, this right constitutes an essential part of European citizens’ fundamental freedoms.

Indeed, the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on Europe, and its longer-term consequences are yet to be fully assessed. While it has been estimated that the economies of the European Union’s member states could shrink by 7.4% this year, the long-lasting impact on its democratic institutions, and on the fundamental rights and freedoms of European citizens, are difficult to foresee.

What is clear, however, is that this crisis has exposed the cracks in European unity. Many member states quickly reverted to unilateral decisions under the pressure. One of the first ‘victims’ of the health-related restriction measures was the freedom of movement in the Union – the right most cherished by European citizens. By the time the European Commission issued its initial guidance to member states – in an attempt to ensure that their border control measures were based on the principles of proportionality and non-discrimination – most had already unilaterally shut down their national borders and imposed 14-day quarantine periods for those arriving into their territory.

As of 18 March, more than 250 million people were in lockdown in Europe. These measures have been accompanied by a proliferation of curfews and domestic restrictions with varying degrees of restrictiveness. While the confinement has presented challenges for all citizens, mobile EU citizens were disproportionately affected.

Many cross-border workers became trapped in a foreign state without access to healthcare or sickness benefits

Unlike a majority of citizens in the EU, who were able to spend the quarantine with their families, many mobile EU citizens were left unable to return home. They had no choice but to stay in the host member state for more than 90 days, separated from their close ones. Their basic right to a family life disappeared. This was exacerbated by the fact that much of the media coverage has been over-simplified, sensationalist or plain false. Mobile EU citizens found it needlessly difficult to determine whether the various unilateral measures apply only to host country nationals or also to them.

The COVID-19 outbreak has also revealed the gravity of the deficiencies in the social security coordination between member states. This, again, has had a devastating impact on the rights of mobile EU citizens who are quarantined, sick, suspended from their jobs, or required to telework abroad. Many cross-border workers or citizens who have just started a job in another EU country became trapped in a foreign state without access to healthcare or sickness benefits in case of illness.

The outbreak in Europe also brought out a darker side in many citizens. Once Italy was shown to be ‘patient zero’, the continent saw an initial rise in xenophobia and discrimination against Italians residing in other EU member states.

Bold actions on behalf of the European Commission will be indispensable

Needless to say, many national responses did little to ease these worries. They reacted to the coronavirus outbreak with unilateral temporary emergency measures that limited, suspended or violated the freedoms of citizens, including their basic constitutional rights.

One of the most flagrant examples has been the Hungarian state of emergency, which saw the country being downgraded in the latest Freedom House “Nations in Transit” report from one of the three democratic frontrunners in 2005 to a non-democratic country in 2020. Other countries, such as Romania, Estonia and Latvia, have also gone as far as to request a derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Although the timeframe and modalities of restoring freedom of movement in the EU are unclear, what is obvious is that safeguarding the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms in the post-crisis period will be extremely challenging. Bold actions on behalf of the European Commission, the ‘guardian of the Treaties’, will be indispensable.

However, this alone will not be sufficient. The European institutions will need the active support and commitment of its member states in order to succeed. The latter can only be ensured if there is a broad multi-stakeholder consensus behind it: citizens, civil society, academia and business must all advocate for European unity based on fundamental rights and freedoms.

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