Free movement of people within the European Union is often held up as a bastion of modern liberalism. This article starts with a single premise upon which the argument that follows is based: the idea that there is (however high or low you set it) some maximum limit on immigration which is desirable in any given year – whether that number is 100 million, or 10,000, the argument holds simply under a pragmatic assertion that it is desirable to have some upper limit on immigration.
The question that follows then, must be: what is the fairest system to determine who can enter the country? Whatever form this system takes, traditional liberal values indicate a number of crucial criteria it must fulfil. There must be a fair and equitable chance for all people who apply to enter the UK to be successful. Most importantly, there must be equality before the law: an ideal, fair and just system of immigration doesn’t take into account your race, gender, or (and here’s the crux of the problem) your nationality.
Just as it is wrong for Donald Trump to issue an arbitrary ban on people from a specific country (or, in the case of his campaign rhetoric, a specific religion), so it is wrong to give preferential treatment to some people over others, simply because of the passport that they hold. The very same people who have been quick to call out Donald Trump on the illiberalism of banning the citizens of seven countries from entering the United States have been less keen to address the hypocrisy of supporting the latter position, indeed, calling the alternative policy illiberal, or xenophobic, or racist.
There’s but one simple problem in the European Union model of immigration: free movement of people means that, if you accept the condition previously outlined about a maximum upper limit, people from 27 countries are prioritised over those from the other 169 nations. This passport discrimination, whereby you give people from some countries a privileged immigration system compared to people from other countries, is inherently illiberal as it violates that crucial condition of equality before the law. If you believe that people from Europe should possess such a privileged position with our immigration system, then by all means continue to support free movement with Europe and a more closed system with the rest of the world.
On the other hand, if you believe that all people, regardless of their result in life’s first great lottery, should have equality before the law in our immigration system, then you have one of two choices. You can choose to defend and advocate free movement of people from all countries, which seems to have significant practical and pragmatic limitations (not to mention violating the condition previously set out); or you can choose to advocate a position that would see all people face the same system of immigration, regardless of whether they come from Berlin or Brazzaville.
It doesn’t seem a fair system to say that someone from Europe should be prioritised over someone from one of the other 169 nations. Ultimately that is the main problem with a liberal justification of free movement of people within the European Union, in that it creates a situation where people are judged initially by their nationality in whether or not they can live and work in the UK. If we end free movement of people, it doesn’t mean that there has to be less immigration – the debate about how high or low the desired level of immigration is still has to be made – but it does mean we will have an inherently fairer, more just immigration system, that looks at who people are and not where they are from.
An immigration system which emphasises equality before the law seems to be the only fair, just, and liberal system. An immigration system which considers people on who they are and not the flag they were born under seems to be the only reasonable, non-discriminatory, and liberal system. An immigration system where your result in life’s first great lottery doesn’t improve or decrease your ability to live and work in the UK is the only justifiable one.