The Intra-EU ‘Other’ as a Threat to the Nation State



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Post by Maartje van der Woude. Maartje is Professor of Law and Society at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society at Leiden University, the Netherlands. Her recent work examines the politics and dialectics of terrorism/crime control, immigration control and border control in the European Union and the growing merger of all three, also referred to as the process of crimmigration. She is currently working on a 5-year research project - “Getting to the Core of Crimmigration” - that was funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) by means of one of their VIDI grants. This is the final installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on Crimmigrant Nations organised by Maartje van der Woude and Robert Koulish

Although my chapter in Crimmigrant Nations discusses the upsurge of nationalist, anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic voices in the Netherlands, a country that is internationally known for its tolerance and for being a ‘good’ country based on what it contributes to the common good of humanity, and what it takes away, relative to its size, this development is visible all throughout Europe. In discussing the rise of these voices even in the most tolerant countries of the European Union, the scholarly literature tends to focus on the fears and anxieties brought about by the increased numbers of refugees and asylum seekers registered in many countries over the past decade. Whereas these figures play an important role – the ‘other’ has become more visible in the daily lives of people –  it is important to note that European nationalistic tendencies aren’t just focusing on the third-country ‘other’; they also target the intra-EU ‘other’.

Whereas third country nationals are portrayed as possible risks to national security, national identity and, according to right-wing groups in across Europe, sources of Covid19, intra-EU migrant workers from CEE countries are presented as a threat to ‘our’ jobs and associated with a range of unruly and deviant behaviors. Despite the fact that the European integration project is premised on an economic model based on the usual capitalist triumvirate of free moving capital, goods, services and people, intra-EU labor migrants from CEE countries aren’t welcomed with open arms.

EU rules and regulations have partly dissolved national state borders in social policy, and EU enlargements have expanded the potential numbers of social policy claimants. Even though social policy de jure is a national prerogative, de facto it is not entirely the case because EU states can no longer choose to whom they give social rights: the domain of potential welfare beneficiaries is now (partly) decided by the influx of intra-EU immigrants. The tension between market liberalization and social protection can thus create demands for across-the-board restrictions in welfare benefits because natives fear that the welfare state is no longer economically and/or morally sustainable.

In short, by ensuring the freedom of movement of Europeans, underpinning a fundamental principle of the EU, and requiring that intra-EU labor immigrants have the same rights to (most types of) health and social security benefits as nationals, the EU has caused friction between the national and EU-immigrant population. While natives may want restrictions on the access to welfare rights of incoming EU citizens, their national governments cannot respond to such concerns by legislating welfare chauvinistic policies. Neither can the governments respond by restricting the free movement of intra-EU labor, because this is a cornerstone of the EU.

What we see happening instead is that through less visible formal and informal bordering processes, intra-EU labor migrants from CEE countries are being ostracized, othered and exploited. Research into the selection criteria of Dutch military and border police officers while performing the intra-Schengen police checks in the border areas with Belgium and Germany shows that cars with Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian license plates were overrepresented in the selection statistics. Officers explained this by explicitly linking the CEE countries to certain forms of cross-border crime and the fact that the Schengen agreement makes it easier for individuals from these countries to use the ‘cover’ of free movement and labor migration.

In her study of the position of Polish workers in pre- Brexit UK, Rzepnikowska  describes how the public discourses on Polish migration in the UK have rapidly turned hostile. While initially Poles were seen as ‘desirable’ migrants and labelled as ‘invisible’ due to their whiteness, after the economic crisis in 2008 and subsequently after the EU referendum in 2016 this perception shifted rapidly. All of a sudden Poles were depicted as taking jobs from British workers and as putting a strain on public services and welfare. While racist and xenophobic violence in the UK has been particularly noted following the Brexit vote, several studies show that Polish and other East European migrants – in particular Romanians -  have always been subjected to issues of discrimination, racialization prejudice in the post 2004 EU accession period . A recent study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA, 2019) also shows how EU migrant laborers particularly from CEE states continue to be treated both as threats to western European societies and as workers for whom exploitation and abuse is acceptable treatment.

There seems to be a growing discrepancy within the European Union between ‘Core’ and ‘non-Core’ Europeans. Whereas ‘Core’ Europeans can fully and without any (spatial) restrictions enjoy their right to free movement, social benefits and labor rights, a group of second-class Europeans seems to have to accept continuous infringements on their right to free movement as well as being exploited. They are allowed to cross borders to conduct cheap labor but do not deserve to share in the limited pie of public benefits and must be prevented from making citizenship claims as that could dilute national culture and national welfare for the native population.  The “citizenship gap” that is being created this way is structural and vital to global capitalism .

The gap and the stark division between Core and non-Core Europeans is also highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis. Whereas Western European countries are anxiously protecting their natives whose lives and health are valued and should be protected from the foreign, potentially infected intruders, they are flying in Romanian seasonal workers. They are seen as disposable subjects whose work matters more than their health, and whose health becomes vital only in relation to the domestic population, that is, only in terms of not contaminating them. While a global pandemic might lead to temporary social distancing for some, for ‘others’ it is something they feel and experience structurally while playing their part in global capitalism. Playing this part also entails that having to physically distance oneself to protect one’s health is seen as less important than keeping the engine of global capitalism running: someone has to pick the strawberries and the asparagus.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

van der Woude, M. (2020). The Intra-EU ‘Other’ as a Threat to the Nation State. Available at: [date]

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