’The EU is hitting the limits in the US system it's modeled after’

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(© Image: Sxc)
(© Image: Sxc)

Policymakers need to reconsider the European Union’s heavy promotion of cross-border mobility if they want to preserve cohesion among member states, according to a new book by three researchers drawing on urban sociology studies carried out at EPFL.

The European Union (EU) needs to adopt a new model for cross-border mobility, or member states could end up imposing restrictions on movement, closing their borders or even withdrawing from the EU entirely, following in the footsteps of the UK. That’s the warning issued by three sociologists in a new book, Europe Beyond Mobility: Mobilities, Social Cohesion and Political Integration (Routledge). Based on the observation that EU citizens are becoming increasingly concerned about the implications of freedom of movement, the sociologists took an in-depth look at the issue and put forth a new concept called "resonant mobility." The goal is to help policymakers explore new regulatory models in order to limit the adverse social, economic and environmental impacts of open borders.

The book provides a novel framework for studying the effects of globalization and envisioning the future trajectory of the EU. Written by Ander Audikana, a postdoc research fellow at the University of Deusto Centre for Applied Ethics in Spain, and Vincent Kaufmann and Guillaume Drevon, two scientists at EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LASUR), the book is intended for EU policymakers, researchers and practitioners who deal with the issue of cross-border mobility. It pulls together the findings of two studies conducted by LASUR as well as a 2017 book published by Les Cahiers Rouges (see the EPFL news article on 22 February 2017, in French only).

Two chapters in your book discuss how, in the past 15 years, freedom of movement has turned into an "obligation to be mobile." How did this shift occur?

Vincent Kaufmann: The European Union is built on the idea of freedom of movement, which is set forth in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, over time - and especially as a consequence of globalization over the past 20 years - this freedom has mutated into a societal norm. We found that highly mobile people in particular view the ability to quickly travel to far-away places as proof of a strong work ethic and career commitment. Many companies have mobility programs in place to train managers and give them international experience, so that they can return to their job full of fresh ideas and innovation. But what we found also extends to leisure activities, as people in certain socio-economic circles reported feeling pressure to travel to distant places on vacation. Paradoxically, "freedom" for them would be the freedom to travel less frequently and less immediately.

Your study examines cross-border areas as microcosms of the EU as a whole when it comes to mobility-related challenges. What did these microcosms reveal?

Guillaume Drevon: Urban cross-border areas are particularly useful for studying the obstacles to EU integration and cohesion, because they show how the dynamics play out within a shared space and in everyday life. The first thing we saw was that having a high number of cross-border workers doesn’t necessarily mean that societal integration has been successful or that workers feel a sense of belonging to the area. If we look at two areas covered in the study - Greater Geneva and Greater Luxembourg - we see fairly high income inequality across national borders due mainly to economic differences between the two countries. To be able to afford to live in Geneva or Luxembourg, for example, you need a high enough salary. This forces people with a lower salary to look for housing farther away - in neighboring France, for people working in Greater Geneva. This inequality at borders could fuel populist movements and give rise to political tension. Cross-border areas are also more vulnerable to shocks, like those from the 2015 terrorist attacks in France or the COVID-19 pandemic, since governments could always reinstate border controls or close their borders in response. I would also point to the fact that global issues like climate change and urban planning - which, if managed correctly, could help foster integration - are not usually addressed at the regional level, since stakeholders typically prioritize their own prerogatives and jurisdictions.

We found that highly mobile people in particular view the ability to quickly travel to far-away places as proof of a strong work ethic and career commitment.

How do you think these problems with cross-border areas could be solved?

Guillaume Drevon: Part of the answer lies in creating a feeling of belonging and attachment to these areas, so that cross-border commons can form societal links beyond national borders. That could be facilitated by building the necessary infrastructure - such as the new Léman Express - to encourage residents to travel back and forth across borders for not just work, but also sporting, cultural and other leisure activities. Examples here include the Paléo music festival and binational sports clubs. Another option could be shared media outlets for these areas.

To resolve some of these issues with cross-border mobility, your book suggests that EU policymakers should apply the concept of "resonant mobility." What do you mean by that?

Ander Audikana: Resonant mobility means considering mobility not just as the movement of people, but also as an opportunity to create meaningful relationships. It covers three basic ideas. First, it is not utopian in that it advocates a realistic rather than an ideological view of freedom of movement. Second, it involves taking a hard look at how the advantages and disadvantages of various types of mobility are distributed within a society; this also encompasses the inevitable "forced mobility," which can be damaging. And third, it covers the quality of the cross-border relationships that are formed and the exchanges that take place. Our impression is that policymakers often engage in superficial discussions about mobility to sidestep the more complicated issues associated with these kinds of relationships and exchanges. It’s also very surprising to see the contrast between how heavily the EU promotes freedom of movement within its borders and how it adopts robust strategies to resist some types of mobility from outside the EU.

The last part of your book looks at political movements that criticize mobility, with a particular focus on Switzerland. What can EU policymakers learn from the resistance to freedom of movement in Switzerland?

Vincent Kaufmann: Switzerland is an interesting case study for two reasons. One, it has four different languages as well as divisions between urban and rural areas and Protestant and Catholic cantons, meaning it’s structured like a mini-EU. Two, the debates that take place surrounding referendums provide valuable insight into the issues that are important to people. We hypothesize that if EU citizens were asked to vote on the same issues, the results would be the same as in Switzerland.

You describe the EU today as a city-continent. How does this metaphor help shed light on mobility-related challenges?

Vincent Kaufmann: We applied what we already knew about cities to the EU as a whole, and saw that the analogy fit well. The EU has developed regions that are akin to gated communities - think Brexit and Catalan independence. However, the mistake policymakers have been making is to consider the EU as a single urban area. If there’s a job opening in the north, for instance, a worker just needs to go take it. But things don’t work on that scale in Europe. The EU is hitting the limits in the US system it’s modeled after. The US is a single country with one predominant language and a uniform healthcare system. EU policymakers are acting as though the region is just one big city, and overlooking the Union’s own limitations.