A legal alien in Oslo: what does it mean to be an EU citizen on the move?

A legal alien in Oslo: what does it mean to be an EU citizen on the move?
Flickr © williumbillium
Earlier this month, we, a team of researchers at the ARENA centre for European studies, organised an event about the experiences of EU migrants in Norway. Our small, pilot project was meant as a first step to highlight the relative invisibility of EU migrants, compared to immigrants from third countries. But our event inadvertently also became a prime example of the technocratic discourse that dominates public debates about the Eurocrisis and contributes to the ever-growing between the EU’s political elites and its citizens.




Norway is by no means no1 destination for EU citizens. But the expat-EU community is growing and the demographic profile of EU migrants is slowly becoming more diverse, as the crisis in the South of Europe intensifies. The alarmist, sensationalist rhetoric on benefit ‘tourism’ (a favourite of anti-EU and Eurosceptic parties, used to describe how poorer EU citizens come to wealthy EU states and fraudulently or undeservedly claim state benefits) and ‘social dumping’ (the shockingly derogatory term that is used, sadly also by academics, to describe how poorer EU citizens coming to work in wealthier countries accept work for lower wages and possibly even no insurance, and in so doing, make it difficult for local workers to earn a living) is gaining more space in Norwegian politics and media. The experiences of the EU migrants themselves are rarely heard. So we hoped our event would help initiate a public debate that would combine different perspectives, going a step further from these commonly used frames.



Moving because of the crisis, staying because of the crisis: Free movement is no longer ‘free’


In our study we saw in particular two profiles of EU migrants in Norway. The first type is those who came to Norway just before or at the onset of the crisis, because they got a job offer, to study or to join a Norwegian partner. Although the Eurocrisis was not the main reason they left their country then, it is the main reason that keeps them in Norway now. For the second group of migrants, their stay in Norway is a direct consequence of the crisis. They had to leave their home country, and picked Norway because of its reputation as a prosperous country with a fair welfare system. For some, the famed Norwegian nature also played a role! The survey and interview material we collected highlighted in the most poignant way the devastation that the Eurocrisis has caused in several EU countries: The majority of EU migrants who participated in our study actually had a job in their home country, but were simply not earning enough to make a living and saw no prospects of improvement in the near future. Clearly, prosperity is no longer guaranteed to all EU citizens. Nor is the right to free movement: Many EU citizens are not just ‘mobile’ anymore, they are immigrants.


Asimina Michailidou - the panel debate Escaping the Eurocrisis at the House of Literature in Oslo on 5 December 2013 (ARENA).



Great expectations from Norway, zero expectations from the EU


Overall the experience of living in Norway is positive and many EU migrants remain hopeful that they will be able to establish themselves here in spite of obstacles and difficulties in becoming integrated in the Norwegian labour market (lack of language is the primary challenge). But the great irony that has shone through our findings is that although most EU citizens who move to Norway are aware of the role their EU citizenship has in facilitating such a move, they would happily trade the right to free movement for the possibility to go back to their home countries and have a prosperous life there instead. There is no doubt in their minds that national governments are the ones primarily to blame for the crisis and feel disappointed and disillusioned by the EU for having failed to firstly avert the crisis and secondly to ensure solidarity towards the people of its weakest member-states. At the same time, a Europe without free movement is difficult for most to imagine. As one study participant put it ‘What is the point of the EU, if we can no longer move freely across countries?’



‘Stick to numbers’: how technocratic discourse widens the gap between EU elites and citizens


Reactions to our findings during our public event were mixed and some certainly surprised us with their brashness: We were reprimanded by representatives of EU member-states for painting a ‘bleaker than reality’ picture for the situation in the EU. After all, ‘Greeks and Italians have migrated before in much greater numbers to Northern European countries (!) and citizens of many other EU countries (see: Northern EU countries) are doing quite well despite the crisis’. So why the focus on EU migrants’ stories? Because the reason that Greeks, Spaniards, Italians and so on have had to migrate over the last century was poverty, often of extreme proportions. That EU citizens find themselves in such a position again in 2013 is not only indisputable but also potentially devastating for the EU polity.


We also received criticism for drawing attention to those who have migrated from the South of the EU as well as Romania and Bulgaria (Greeks, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanians and Bulgarians made up over half of the participants in our study, even though we distributed the original questionnaire widely and 25 EU nationalities were eventually represented in the survey). The number of EU migrants from the South of the Union is very low compared to those who come to Norway from Sweden or Poland. Why give so much publicity to the experiences of those coming from the South? Because they are largely the ones who no longer have the option to go back. They are the EU citizens for whom ‘free movement’ is a one-way, often involuntary, option.

Torchlight demonstration in the streets of Oslo 


Crucially, what the above criticisms exemplify is the dominant technocratic trend we find in the public debates of the Eurocrisis across Europe. The view staunchly supported by most government parliamentarians, several prominent news media outlets and a sizeable proportion of academics is that EU citizens - especially those who are hit the hardest by the crisis and thus have to bear the highest brunt - are better served if they are given ‘the numbers’. To talk about the ‘human face’ of the Eurocrisis is then ‘misleading’ and pointlessly ‘sentimental’; it is ‘populist’. It clouds people’s judgement, so the argument goes.


Numbers are fine; numbers are necessary even: they allow for comparisons to be made. If we know not only the exact amount of government debt that Greece, for example, has, but also the exact number of unemployed in said country who are the result of government efforts to reduce the debt, then we can calculate if the efforts to reduce the debt are worth it. But numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Often, they don’t even tell us the true story.


At a time when the EU is looking for ‘new narratives’ to reconnect its institutions with its citizens, disconnecting the crisis from people’s experiences, be that the desperate pensioner who ends his life in the public square or the hundreds of thousands who cannot afford heating petrol, means that we deny citizens their public voice. Citizens become invisible. They are numbers and numbers don’t speak, don’t think and don’t feel. Once we get to that point (in many countries, we are already there) only a few steps separate us from the ‘collateral damage’ way of speaking and acting towards citizens.

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