Freedom of Movement and Benefit Tourism: Paying Attention to the Background

by Raia Apostolova

28 March 2016

We know that a good director contrasts the foreground and the background of movie scenes in order to show us details that otherwise would go unnoticed. These details are what make the movie complete by virtue of their potential to change the perception of what we consider to be true or not. David Cameron would be a bad film director. But I am afraid that the audience is not paying much attention either.

How else would we explain the boundary between ‘deserving refugees’ and ‘undeserving economic migrants’ that has comfortably settled among us? Or binaries such as border-building eastern Europeans and human-loving westerners? Unless we are comfortable with the opposition that differentiates political and economic migrants and, therefore, with the way liberalism defines capitalism as politically non-violent, we need to pay more attention to the details.

The so-called ‘benefit tourist’ seems to be one migratory category of the future, and Cameron is content to portray that figure as if she possesses superhero-like powers which are able to destroy the EU. By now we should have learned how such categories absorb the less immediately visible contradictions of major political changes, so let’s look a little closer at what ‘benefit tourism’ entails.

The figure of the ‘benefit tourist’ emerged strongly on the European scene in 2013 when the UK was about to open its labour market to Romanian and Bulgarian workers. Back then, Cameron set about altering the definition of freedom of movement on the basis of ongoing struggles. This debate over the freedom of movement – and Cameron’s construction of what constitutes benefit tourism – played a crucial role during the 19 February meeting of the European Council regarding Brexit.

Freedom of movement is no longer conceived as inseparable from bodies, but as a mediating factor in the perceived misuse of the relics of the welfare state: Cameron has redefined freedom of movement from a right to an abuse. As such, we should not be surprised by his utterance of seeming oxymorons such as ‘freedom of movement needs to be less free’ anymore. Back in 2013, even the Bulgarian minister of interior, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, promised Cameron that Bulgaria would do whatever it could to prevent the movement of the poor so they could not reach the British welfare system. Little did Tsvetanov and Cameron know that stopping the movement of the ‘poor’ is not possible.

The reason behind such impossibility lays in the type of relation freedom of movement has become for the millions who fell victim to the structural adjustments and liberalisation of markets implemented in the 90s in countries like Bulgaria and Romania. Needless to say, such reforms took place because of tremendous pressure exercised by the EU, and the right to move freely was only to be granted once desirable reforms had taken place. These reforms ended up with many finding it impossible to socially reproduce their lives. And if in the late 80s and early 90s, moving freely was romanticised as the embodiment of liberation, shortly afterwards it retreated to its initial purpose instead – namely to shorten the time gap between the potential of gaining labour power and the actuality of its exploitation. On one hand, freedom of movement provided an outlet the building pressure between the (departure) state and hindered reproduction. On the other, it absorbed the interrupted relation between capital and labour power, where the wage given by the former guarantees the reproduction of the latter. Paying jobs, throughout the entire EU, are becoming harder and harder to secure.

Even Cameron knows that the labour of the so-called abusers of welfare is forced into irregularity because its exploitation depends on capital that operates through subcontracting. The latter, often coupled with wage-free jobs, increasingly constitutes a social relation where movement has acquired the form of a peculiar means of subsistence. It does not maintain labour power directly, yet, it generates possibilities for its reproduction.

Freedom of movement, capital and the state merge together and produce a specific kind of labourer: one who is constantly on the move in order to reproduce herself. This does not concern solely the working poor as Cameron wants you to believe. Travelling at a gallop between this and that European country has become a reality for many eastern Europeans – and not because of some perceived and newly found cosmopolitanism. The liberal conception of freedom of movement changes the relation between the background and the foreground just a bit. We want more than that, I hope.

Photo: Jonas Bengtsson/Flickr

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