As we see the imposition of hard borders within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the first time since the Acts of Union in 1707, the cosmopolitan dream of a world without borders appears to be slipping away.
The European Union, once an organization eager to push for the dismantling of borders and promote the free movement of people, goods and services, is also beginning to appear lukewarm on this concept. Brexit and the Northern Ireland border could have been the cause of this unravelling, but they are not. The pandemic seems to have been more successful, with its ability to make visible national borders, impose quarantines and reassert the nation-state as the main management and administration unit.
But herein lies the problem. The economic consequences of imposed immobility can only be mitigated by consumption, which seems to be the only way to keep once thriving economies away from the brink of disaster. Governments, notably the UK, has kept encouraging us to shop, buy from local businesses, eat take-aways. Which also means that rather than allowing customers to face empty shelves and ring cash registers empty, many EU countries (and the UK) have been temporarily relaxing their pandemic transborder mobility rules for labourers willing to travel to pick up fresh produce in the fields, or stack boxes in distribution centres.
In Germany, the likely demise of the asparagus in the absence of Romanian pickers became a national issue. Last April, Cluj Airport in North West Romania displayed chaotic scenes as 2,000 asparagus and strawberry pickers boarded chartered planes bound for Germany in one day only. In May, Martin Hofstätter, a private entrepreneur from Northern Italy, also rented private jets to bring Romanian workers for his vineyards. The UK followed.
Throughout the autumn and in the run-up to Christmas, packing and distribution warehouses along the M6 corridor continued their aggressive recruitment campaigns, with Romanian warehouse operatives arriving in droves, without being tested or even offered quarantine advice. As discussions in Facebook groups attest, this type of work is still recruiting, despite other industries collapsing.
As we now enter into another UK lockdown and with further restrictions imposed throughout Europe, the case of preferential mobility during the pandemic raises certain issues.
On an optimistic note, it makes the plight of casual labourers visible. These once tolerated subjects of negative media campaigns and poor European cousins, have now become valued key workers. It has taken a massive crisis and a huge personal risk, but it has happened.
An alternative interpretation could be that the EU (and the UK) are continuing their duplicitous policies regarding desirable versus undesirable migrants, those who are welcome to avail themselves of mobility rights, and those who are kept away; exploited or deported when necessary.
Of course, this can also be considered a form of neocolonialism, with the possible complicity of the colonized. Why did the Romanian government allow workers to travel to countries with higher infection rates to solve someone else’s labour shortages?
Whichever interpretation you prefer, the cosmopolitan dream of equal recognition, fruitful cultural exchange and free movement for all is still slipping away.
Dr Remus Gabriel Anghel is Senior Researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu is ISR Research Fellow and Reader in Communication, Edge Hill University, UK.