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The EU can help Europeans rediscover the ties that bind us

Europe is united by common values, but borders and boundaries are crucial too - writes a European Commission vice president. 

At the end of last year, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, I felt the need to reflect on the values that were driving the political discourse of the day. In the midst of the headlines, reactions and counter-reactions, I wanted to think about why the issue was such a difficult one to tackle politically. I put pen to paper with a short book published in my native Dutch, which is now available in English too.

My thoughts first settled on Victor Hugo in 1875, elaborating on the values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Hugo saw liberty as a right, equality as a fact and fraternity, or as we might say now, solidarity, as an obligation. He made the point that if we cannot meet our obligation to fraternity then liberty and equality become irrelevant. Because we are all interconnected, the weak must be the concern of the strong and the protection of their rights is a sacred duty. The principle holds just as true for me today.

Yet it seems as though we as a society have forgotten this important lesson. Our world is full of dangers and uncertainties and we are too often paralysed by fear for the future and of others. It’s like walking on a path that is so bumpy that your gaze narrows to the point directly in front of your feet and all you see is that one spot. Our attention is focused solely on the here and now, the next step. We no longer see what is happening around us. This prevents us from looking, feeling or caring.

First comes the notion that we are losing something – jobs, status, identity. Then the argument goes like this: we will get it back and everything will be fixed if we build up walls. This discourse is increasingly setting the terms of the debate in Europe. But building walls will simply not work. That is true for managing the refugee crisis, and it is true within society more generally.

I remain convinced that we can address the refugee crisis if EU countries work better together. We are finally realising the need to take a leap of faith and act together - to better protect external borders, to jointly contribute to taking refugees through resettlement, and to ensure that those with no right to asylum are returned home humanely. If we continue our work to break the sickening business model of people smugglers, by offering safe pathways to protection inside and outside the EU, we'll get through this together.

The main reason why progress has been slow is because Europe suffers from a pervasive lack of trust. We have too little trust in our own ability to cope. And too little trust in one another. This makes solidarity difficult. But solidarity is not altruism. Altruism is giving something with no expectations. Solidarity means sharing something because it makes us stronger collectively. And often, it means giving something today because you know solidarity will also be there tomorrow when you need it.

It has struck me that this lack of trust is also what we are seeing within our societies. The last 15 years have been tough on people and our working and middle classes feel that their contribution is constantly being called upon, and what they get in return isn't always clear. Similarly, in the refugee crisis the self-interest of acting together has been difficult to get across. The understanding that, for the Schengen area, management of the external borders is a common endeavour was not immediately accepted.  

Rebuilding links is also vital in our communities. People today live increasingly separate but parallel lives. But living together should be more than simply existing alongside each other. Global developments will lead to more diverse societies everywhere. We should accept this and make the most of the opportunities while managing the risks. But we need rules and boundaries, as communities also need internal cohesion. With the European Football Championships just around the corner, let me use a football analogy.

Think of a newcomer, a refugee maybe, like someone asking to take part in a football match for the first time. He wants to join in, but he has no idea about the rules, so he spends the entire game in an offside position. Everyone grumbles at him, and after a couple of tries, no one passes him the ball any more. He doesn’t understand what he's doing wrong and decides that the others just don’t like him. He turns around and walks off. He is more excluded than before he went on the pitch; he feels unwelcome, rejected, and different. This is exactly the wretched position in which many migrants and their children (or grandchildren) have ended up in. Of course he needs to make an effort to learn the rules too, but someone needs to be there to show him what they are.

To regain confidence and move forward rather than backwards we need to remember and strengthen the ties that bind us. We should not build walls between each other, but we should also not fall under the illusion that boundaries should cease to exist. Borders and boundaries matter. They are lines between us that show our differences, and allow us to build connections with each other. Mutual respect begins at the point where one person meets and respects the other’s border.

The starting point for making these connections and rekindling the spirit of solidarity is to build strong, cohesive communities at the local and national level. The European Union's role in this context is a modest one. We will continue to help tackle issues which cross borders and cannot be dealt with by individual countries acting alone: national where possible, European where necessary. The values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité have inspired Europe and endured for almost 150 years. Let our generation not be the one that abandons them.

Frans Timmermans is first vice president of the European commission. Community: Discovering ties that bind is published in English by Policy Network

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.