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The Future of Freedom of Movement in Europe: Challenges in the Face of the ‘Twin Storms’ of COVID-19 and Brexit

Freedom of movement in Europe is facing turbulent times with the ongoing COVID19 pandemic and Brexit. The policy roundtable on ‘Turbulent times for the freedom of movement in Europe? The impact Brexit and Pandemic Politics’ during the first NEXTEUK international conference on Brexit and the future of EU-UK relations gathered scholars and policy experts in the field of migration, asylum, and justice and home affairs on 11 September 2020. Claude Moraes (former Chair of European Parliament LIBE Committee), Violeta Moreno-Lax (QMUL), Susanne Oberhauser (European Parliament Liaison Office in the UK), Nicole Sykes (ProBono Economics), Valsamis Mitsilegas (QMUL), and Sabine Saurugger (Sciences Po Grenoble) offered their views on the challenges facing freedom of movement in Europe in the face of the ‘twin storms’ of COVID-19 and Brexit.


Written by Tinahy Andriamasomanana, Queen Mary, University of London

Two German policemen behind barriers stop the traffick

The ‘twin storms’ of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic are worsening already existing issues surrounding migration and freedom of movement in Europe, as argued by Susanne Oberhauser. The speakers, Claude Moraes, Violeta Moreno-Lax, Susanne Oberhauser and Nicole Sykes, and the discussants, Valsamis Mitsilegas and Sabine Saurugger, agreed that Brexit and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have had a significant impact on freedom of movement – particularly for individuals seeking asylum and international protection in Europe, migrants coming to Europe, as well as the movement of people and goods between the UK and Europe after the Brexit transition period. Brexit and pandemic politics have increasingly been used by EU Member State governments, and the UK government, as a tool to legitimise more restrictive policies for managing migration and the movement of people in Europe.

The speakers agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded this ongoing trajectory towards a more security-based approach to the management of migration by European governments. The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards the securitisation of EU borders and freedom of movement. External borders (for asylum seekers, migrants, and third country nationals), but also internal EU borders within the Schengen area are becoming increasingly securitised. As discussed by Claude Moraes, European governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing borders and re-introducing internal border controls. These temporary measures have largely been implemented unilaterally by European governments. The overall response by the EU has been highly fragmented – with responses varying across EU Member States, and across sectors. This has also been illustrated by the different criteria used by individual EU Member State governments, and the UK government, for adding and removing countries, territories and regions from their travel corridor lists. Major reforms to the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), such as the Asylum Procedures Directive and the Qualification Directive, as well as reforms to the Schengen Borders Code have also been disrupted by the ongoing pandemic, according to Moraes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made an inherent tension facing European governments more visible, between their responsibility to uphold the right to freedom of movement, while ensuring the health and safety of their citizens, according to Sabine Saurugger. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, European governments are having to make a trade-off between protecting the health and safety of EU citizens to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and the freedom of movement of people – which is one of the cornerstones of EU integration.

COVID-19 has also transformed migration, and free movement to the United Kingdom, in two main ways according to Violeta Moreno-Lax. COVID-19 prevention measures, such as stricter border controls at UK airports and other entry points, are making it increasingly more difficult for individuals seeking international protection to travel to the United Kingdom. As a result, individuals are turning towards more dangerous and challenging routes to try and reach the UK. This has resulted in a rise in Channel crossings, with over 5,000 crossings between January 2020 and September 2020. The second issue, according to Moreno-Lax is that the UK government’s response to this new trend in migration to the UK, and this recent increase in Channel crossings, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been misplaced. During this period, the UK government has increasingly implemented a ‘push back’ policy, and relied on the navy and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to push back individuals back to France, rather than focusing on rescue at sea operations. In August, a ‘Clandestine Channel Commander’ within the MoD was appointed, Dan O’Mahoney, to make the Channel route ‘unviable’ for individuals seeking to reach the UK through the Channel route, using small boats. The UK has increasingly used an approach that is similar to the Australian ‘push back’ approach that is used against migrants travelling from Indonesia. In Moreno-Lax’s view, COVID-19 and Brexit has been used as a tool by the UK government to legitimise more restrictive policies regarding Channel crossings.    

Brexit has also had a considerable impact, and will likely continue to have an impact, on the freedom of movement in Europe. In the post-Brexit period, disruptions in the freedom of movement in Europe, especially the free movement of people, goods, and services between the UK and the EU, is likely to be significant. Overall, the speakers agree that Brexit may lead to more isolationism for the UK. Freedom of movement is inherently linked to freedom of trade, as highlighted by Nicole Sykes. Brexit is likely to have a considerable impact on services trade, which relies on the movement of people across borders. Trade involves the ability to meet people and to develop relations across borders. Trade is also largely dependent on the ability to move freely across borders. Brexit is likely to result in significant in delays in the supplies of goods (including food and pharmaceuticals) from the EU to the UK.

There is considerable uncertainty facing the ongoing UK-EU trade talks, with the UK government putting forth a new Internal Market Bill, which the EU considers problematic. The EU then began legal proceedingsagainst the UK after the deadline for the UK government to remove sections of the Bill had passed. The post-Brexit landscape for the UK economy, after the transition period, which ends on 31 December 2020, remains uncertain. The question remains whether the UK government will emphasise the internal growth of the UK economy in the post-Brexit period, according to Sykes. It is also unclear what this will mean for the free movement of people, goods, and services between the UK and the EU. The issue of whether the UK will continue to cooperate with the EU in the field of migration and asylum also remains uncertain, according to Moreno-Lax. Exiting the Dublin Convention will most likely have serious fundamental rights consequences for asylum seekers and migrants, and will be detrimental for unaccompanied children who reach the UK.

In Valsamis Mitsilegas’ view, Brexit and COVID-19 are changing the meaning, and forcing EU Member State governments to re-think free movement, borders, and citizenship in Europe. The challenge is that this ‘re-thinking’ may lead to fundamental existential challenges on the structure of the European Union and on the management of migration and freedom of movement in Europe. On 23 September 2020, the European Commission announced the New Pact on Migration and Asylum which aims to tackle some of the shortcomings surrounding the management of migration and asylum in the European Union by integrating the internal and external dimensions of migration policies. However, it remains to be seen whether this New Pact on Migration and Asylum will fundamentally transform the management of migration and free movement in Europe. The question remains whether this trend towards greater isolationism across Europe, as illustrated by the re-introduction border closures and internal border controls, which has been widespread during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, will continue and become more widely entrenched across Europe.


Photo credit: Van Hoorn/ANP/AFP via Getty



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