The historical legacies of the EU's Free Movement of Persons

On June 15th, the European Union officially reopened its inner borders, effectively lifting the travel restrictions put in place to contain the spread of Covid-19. The Schengen Agreement, considered as the most advanced accomplishment of European integration, is now back in force. 

Will the suspension of the Freedom of Movement during the Covid-19 pandemic leave a permanent dent in the plan towards a truly united Europe?

Here to answer our questions is Cristina Blanco Sío-López, who has recently been selected as Member of the Spanish Young Academy, representing the field of History. Cristina is currently ‘Marie Skłodowska-Curie’ Global Fellow at the European Studies Center (ESC) - EU Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence (JMEUCE) of the University of Pittsburgh and at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, under the supervision of professor Matteo Legrenzi, where she coordinates the EU Horizon 2020 research project ‘Navigating Schengen: Historical Challenges and Potentialities of the EU’s Free Movement of Persons, 1985-2015’ (NAVSCHEN).

Yes, indeed, not just ‘Schengen’ as a whole, but, very particularly, the EU’s Free Movement of Persons is considered —as relevant scholars in the field such as Claus Offe have remarked —as one of the most meaningful, and also the most popular accomplishments ever of European integration. However, the Free Movement of Persons continues to be relegated as the so-called ‘fourth freedom’, always disconsidered in comparison with the other three ‘Schengen freedoms’: goods, capitals and services.

And yet, it was the only freedom which could effectively activate the Single Market and give an argument for a consensus between EP conservative and progressive forces in favour of human mobility rights in our continent.

Authors like Adrian Favell, for instance, have been very active in denouncing how this  ‘fourth freedom’ is crashing under the weight of ever-growing social inequalities, which is a highly relevant dimension on this issue.

The suspension of this very particular Schengen freedom among the ‘four freedoms’ —the Free Movement of Persons— is not totally novel, as it happened in the recent past in response to politically controversial ‘security challenges’ (e.g. with the argument of containing terrorist threats in the EU or to counteract a high influx of fragile populations including refugees from ongoing conflict and war, etc.). In this sense, the suspension in itself does not constitute more of a shock now than it did in recent years.

Nonetheless, there is an innovative element: Those cases made a clear distinction between categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Very much on the contrary, the current suspension covers us all. There is not (yet) a group of beneficiaries and a controlled group. The controlled group is literally everybody in the COVID-19 context and this triggers a level of social anxiety and incertitude that cannot be tempered with any kind of newly established arbitrary privilege.  A balance out of this puzzle could be marked by (finally) committing to forms of human mobility which do not deviate from fundamental freedoms and rights. “

Dr. Blanco Sío-López's research focuses on European Integration History —with an accent on enlargement policy temporalities and the Schengen area fundamental rights— Global Governance, Comparative Regional Integration and Digital Humanities. She coordinated and participated in numerous international research projects, conferences and peer-reviewed publications in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, in line with the Academy’s commitment to transnational cooperation.

Her EU H-2020 research project ‘NAVSCHEN’ focuses on the idea of looking back into history to see beyond in terms of building a commonly inclusive, sustainable and empowering future for Europe’. Her current research at the historical archives of the ‘Barbara Sloan’ European Union Document Collection —bestowed from the Delegation of the European Commission to the U.S.A. in Washington, D.C. to the University of Pittsburgh— offers an unparalleled opportunity to rediscover empowering historical legacies on the EU’s Free Movement of Persons within trans-Atlantic dialogues on the very timely issue of the belonging and displacement of transnational mobile populations, whose migration patterns built up principles, norms, political cultures and entire civilizations on their wake.

In this regard, Dr. Blanco Sío-López commitment to the issue of human mobility rights in our challenging COVID-19 European and global context touches upon both research and evidenced-based policy advice: From a research perspective, she centres on human mobility criteria historically based on fundamental freedoms and rights to counteract exclusive and discriminatory forms of mobility regulation using, for instance, public health concerns arguments in a post-COVID-19 world.

In addition, now that data is being economically defined as ‘the new oil’, she examines past concerns and advice on substituting surveillance as an emerging business model by social responsibility as a key point to maintain a grounding quality of democracy in European and global governance.

From a policy evidence perspective, she will be co-directing the ‘Global Passport for Scholars’ (GPS) Initiative from the Global Young Academy (GYA), in cooperation with the UNESCO. In terms of upcoming challenges and opportunities for the EU, the COVID-19 context has provided a scenario design setting in which solidarity beyond past North-South and East-West cleavages and prejudices will make the difference between an increasingly  asymmetric and collectively diffident future or a mutually enhancing becoming based on recovering a true sense of ‘community’ building.

Dr. Blanco Sío-López, could social surveillance be used as a blueprint for emerging business models in the post Covid-19 world?

Generalised social surveillance as a business model has been in place for longer that we dare to realize, as part of a process of de-coupling of fundamental rights and security in EU policy-making and global governance. It has been extremely  interesting, research-wise, to unearth especially relevant European Parliament archival documents from the early nineties in which ‘Schengen’ is presented as a potential excuse for’ a systematic classification, profiling and follow-up of the movements of European citizens’, an idea which deeply resonates with the over-normalised, daily and worldwide violations of privacy rights of global citizens nowadays. In an official  Report dating back to 5 October 1992 on behalf of the Committee of Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs of the European Parliament on the entry into force of the Schengen Agreements, we can find the following statement "First the Schengen Information System (SIS) and then the European Information System (EIS): Is Europe collecting information about its citizens on a hard disk?"

The increasing securitisation of migration in EU policy-making provided the template for that already consolidated business model. The question is, is that who we want to be as human societies or do we want to aspire to a balance between liberty and security that is respectful of the quality of democracy?
The current COVID-19 context might be now offering us a chance to renounce to overarching notions of surveillance, security and control in favour of a comprehensive concept of social responsibility

Is the European Union heading towards a common, emancipated and sustainable future?

As a historian, I might not be the best person to ask about scenario design. But I do feel a strong commitment to follow this personal motto: ‘Looking back to see beyond’. Therefore, I would say that the bad news is that we must take responsibility of the future. The good news is that the future ‘also’ depends on us. This means that we have leverage and a chance to influence our own collective becoming by consciously raising our voices regarding ethical imperatives through: a more participative democracy, transnational cooperation (as global challenges override national frontiers) and dialogued democracy. 

Dr. Blanco Sío-López was selected as a member of the Spanish Young Academy by an independent international committee made up of renowned scholars from different areas. The latter distinguished only 7% of the applicants by virtue of a truly competitive process due to the candidates’ excellent professional track record.

The average age of the thirteen new academics is 39 years old, 6 of them being women. Their profiles cover different fields including History, Computer sciences, Chemistry, Biology, Materials sciences, Veterinary sciences, Bioengineering and Psychology. Among them, there are recipients of prestigious EU grant programmes, such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie and the ERC grants. In total, the thirteen new members of the Spanish Young Academy are the authors of more than 1,000 scientific articles.

Dr. Blanco Sío-López was previously an Assistant Professor in European Culture and Politics at the University of Groningen and 'Santander' Senior Fellow in European Studies at the European Studies Center – St. Antony’s College of the University of Oxford. She is also a Member of the Global Young Academy (GYA) and obtained her PhD at the EUI in Florence, for which she received the FAEY Best PhD Thesis ‘European Research and Mobility’ Award.