UCL European Institute


Some thoughts on the psycho-geography of Europe's free movement

07 April 2016, 12:00 am

Some thoughts on the psycho-geography of Europe’s free movement

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Eastern European migration takes place in a very different context than it once did. Eva Hoffman, author and essayist, asks what drives people to leave, and what drives them back again? This piece is part of the UCL European Institute's commissioning partnership with openDemocracy.
7 April 2016
Eva Hoffman

Cross-national movements - as we are all too aware these days - come in different forms and categories, reflected in the various designations we use for those who leave one country for another. There are immigrants and guest workers, refugees and exiles, émigrés and expatriates - terms that point to distinct kinds of social, but also perhaps socio-psychological experience. The different circumstances surrounding individual migration and the wider political or cultural contexts within which it takes place can have enormous practical and psychic repercussions. It matters greatly, for starters, whether you choose to leave or were forced to; it matters whether you're coming to a new land unprotected and unprovided for, or whether you can expect, or transport, some kind of safety net. For the countries of intake, it matters how many come and what they are able to bring with them, what they need and what they can potentially contribute.

Among all these genres of movement, the European migrations which have been gaining momentum since the EU enlargement in 2004 are a new and hard to define phenomenon. As someone who emigrated from Poland in a very different era, I have watched the new kinds of journeys undertaken by eastern Europeans across the new Europe with close interest, and sometimes - it must be confessed - some bafflement.

To give you a bit of my own back story, if only to highlight the contrasts between now and then: my family's emigration took place during the cold war period - at a time when eastern Europe was cut off from the western world by the iron curtain and by severe restrictions on travel outside the Soviet sphere. In 1956, for a complex mix of reasons including internecine Communist Party conflicts, undercurrents of anti-Semitism, and a post-Stalinist thaw, the general ban on emigration was briefly lifted for the Jewish part of the population - and a large percentage of that terribly reduced community chose to take advantage of the opening.

My parents were among those who chose to leave, and at the end of the 1950s our small nuclear family left on one-time exit visas. Like all cold war emigrants, we assumed that we could never return, that our departure was final and irrevocable. This, of course, created an extremely sharp sense of rupture; the past was all of a sudden on one side of a divide, the present on the other. The place we were emigrating to was Vancouver, Canada - the very antipode of Cracow, where I grew up. It is perhaps hard to imagine any longer a contrast as stark as that which separated these two cities - a contrast also partly created by the historical realities of the cold war. Poland was a country ravaged by war, impoverished and stifled by an oppressive regime. The presence of the past, and the palpable memories of mass destruction, far outweighed any forward momentum. Vancouver, on the other hand, was all future and no past - a new, raw boom-town, riding on a wave of material expansion and quite innocent of history, or collective tragedy.

The cold war created a bipolar world; and it is a feature of migration taking place under such circumstances that it encourages a construction of a bipolar internal world. Spatially, the world becomes riven into two parts, divided by an uncrossable barrier; temporally, the past is all of a sudden on one side, the present on the other. For me, in my adolescent uprooting, this magnified the sense of dislocation and loss; as well as a sense of deeper rupture within the fabric of identity. But for most emigrants, the impossibility of return also created the incentive - and the need - to locate one's life in the place of one's arrival, and to make oneself at home in one's new society and world. For me, this entailed a kind of self-translation - transposing my very self into the idiom of the new language and culture.

But that emigration took place more than half a century ago. Since then, the iron curtain has lifted and the Berlin wall has fallen. The 'velvet revolutions' of 1989 brought 'the other Europe' into the sphere of Europe, tout court, and eventually into the European Union.


I think we can safely say that in Europe, the age of exile is over. Instead, we are witnessing a new phenomenon of mass-scale, voluntary migrations, and almost entirely unhampered cross-national movements. The young Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians who come to Britain or other western countries make their journeys across a continent no longer divided by borders; if they want to return to their country of origin, they can do so with relative ease. Indeed, if they want to try a different destination, they can travel on as well - and some, although not many, decide to pull up stakes more than once.

What drives these migrations, what kinds of choices do they involve, and what kinds of psychic repercussions are they likely to have? Having travelled through eastern Europe shortly after the transitions of 1989 as part of the research for my book, Exit Into History, I could well understand the initial excitement accompanying the opening of European borders and the very notion of 'free movement', where previously there was practically no possibility of movement at all. For the inhabitants of eastern Europe who were in effect arrested in their countries - economically static, closed-off, governed by grimly repressive regimes - 'the west' was a space of desire and the site of culture and true civilisation; a half-mythical realm of wondrous prosperity, personal opportunity, and far-ranging freedom.

The first great burst of the post-1989 eastern European migrations was still fuelled by these distance-bred preconceptions, as well as by more pragmatic motives and incentives. And of course, to some extent the preconceptions were based in social realities. Western Europeans in the post-war period were indeed much more prosperous, freer, better dressed and incomparably better housed than most inhabitants of the eastern and Balkan regions. But in the quarter century since the 'velvet revolutions', eastern European countries have undergone various degrees of development (however imperfect), and democratisation (however incomplete). Indeed, while western Europe was undergoing its economic crisis Poland was judged to be the economic miracle of the continent. The contrasts are no longer so stark, and with greater familiarity surely the image of 'the west' has lost some of its idealised glamour - although Britain still remains the favourite immigrant destination for eastern Europeans (and apparently for everyone else as well).

This is a much more ambiguous set of propositions than the stark polarities created by the cold war world; and I have often wondered how the new political geography of Europe affects what could be called the psycho-geography of those who move within it. How does the decision to leave one's country of origin voluntarily alter one's self-definition, or perception of one's life-trajectory? How does it affect the relationship to one's native country, and the country to which one chooses to emigrate - and where one might, or might not, settle for good? I cannot fully enter into the internal world of people who undertake such journeys and decisions; but it seems inevitable that ambiguity creates ambivalence; and that for many of the new immigrants, decisions about whether to stay or return are rarely final, and never unproblematic. The question of which place to call 'home' is rarely foreclosed.

Indeed, it is possible that in our interconnected, perpetually nomadic world, the very meanings of home and uprooting, belonging and displacement, may be changing; that the weight of history and the shaping force of national cultures are lessening; and that our identities will be increasingly constructed by other, more globalised forces - technology, trade, travel, the Esperanto of the internet. And perhaps this is creating a lighter, more flexible form of personality, less prone to the excesses of nationalism, or the sense that any one country is the centre of importance.

This must surely be good, but I wonder if there aren't losses in the new circumstances as well; if in our world of travelling light, we don't risk what Milan Kundera has called "the unbearable lightness of being" - the condition of being unanchored in any stable structures or attachments, or a kind of permanent existential suspension. The literary critic James Wood, in a wonderful essay called 'On not going home', coined the term "homelooseness" - a state of neither belonging nor homelessness but of being betwixt and between, and somehow learning to live with both the poignant nostalgia for the country left and the slight estrangement, or at least detachment, from the country where one actually lives.

The sensations and dilemmas described by Wood, and the kinds of questions he implicitly asks, are often experienced (if not often so subtly articulated) by many of the new immigrants: what is this country to me - or I to this country? Can its landscapes and sounds ever tug at my heartstrings the way that songs or jokes of my native country do? Can I ever feel comforts of familiarity here, or am I always going to miss my family and friends, my village, my town? Am I going to go back sometime - or will I stay here for the rest of my life? Indeed, is this my life - and have I chosen it, or has it somehow just happened?


The condition described by Wood and the predicaments arising from it were, until recently, the fairly exceptional province of itinerant intellectuals, nomadic artists, and other, relatively privileged cosmopolitans. They were to a large extent individual problems, to be grappled with in individual psyches and lives. But, given their speed and scale, the EU migrations raise questions not only of consequences for individual identity, but their impact on the larger society.

In the UK, the issues around 'free movement' are debated mostly in economic terms - reflecting the predominantly economic character of the general political discourse. Do immigrants in their numbers bring more gains to the British economy than they take out? Do they take jobs away from British workers, or do they provide useful labour for industries which need hard-working employees, apparently inducted into a more disciplined work ethic than many young British men and women? Should immigrants get the same benefits as British citizens, or is that simply unfair?

These are all legitimate and important questions; but surely, reverberations of large-scale immigration are not only economic, but more broadly social and cultural. The cultural differences between western and eastern Europeans are hardly unbridgeable or extreme, but the new immigrants form a critical mass large enough to live in their own neighbourhoods and enclaves; to form relationships and friendships largely among themselves; and to have their own institutions, such as churches which offer services in their own language. They are not always certain whether they will stay here for good. This means that they often remain disengaged from their British environment, or the issues of the day which matter quite a bit to others.

Given the size of the immigrant phenomenon (a large subset of the even larger multicultural issue), it would be disingenuous to ignore the effects of such detachment or separateness on something which can only be called solidarity - the elusive but crucial sense that we are all members of the same 'imagined community' (as well as members of particular communities); that whatever our particular disagreements, we all care in common about the common good; that we are willing to extend to each other a sense of basic trust, and include each other in the sphere of mutual concern and responsibility.

Our attitudes towards immigrants - and towards multicultural 'others' altogether - have veered between denigration and idealisation. The model of multiculturalism we have devised (partly out of fear of old-fashioned prejudice) is a kind of compromise solution, based on the idea of tolerance as benign indifference and respectful distance. But if we are not to risk social fragmentation, we need much more robust forms of engagement and a closer acquaintance with each other. We need forums on which we can engage in candid dialogue about what matters to us, and what we want and should be able to demand from each other.

What about the effects of large-scale migrations on the countries of origin? This is something which is hardly ever discussed in Britain, but which also deserves our concern. On the official level, free movement is of course supported by all the governments in eastern European countries; but in informal conversations one finds much more mixed attitudes. There are people who think emigrants have brought economic benefits to Poland (in money sent back to their families), and should be congratulated on their enterprising spirit. But I have talked to Polish university professors who are worried about the diminishing numbers of students entering universities - due partly to low population growth, but partly to migration. I remember a conversation with a taxi driver in Cracow who was angry at his own sons for going to the UK, and suggested with some vehemence that young people who left were sometimes opportunistic, and certainly unpatriotic.

Elsewhere, the Romanian health service has apparently been severely undermined by the numbers of doctors and nurses who have left for various western regions. Bulgaria has suffered one of the steepest population declines in the world since 1989, largely due to emigration - whole villages have apparently been emptied, leaving only a few old people to carry on. A substantial number of emigrants have of course come from the educated stratum of the society, and the well-trained professional classes. I actually feel a sense of personal poignancy at these statistics, and the images of dying villages. When I travelled through Bulgaria in 1990, I was particularly charmed by the liveliness, openness and political vitality of the Bulgarian intelligentsia. The loss of so many of its members must surely be detrimental to the political and cultural life of the country, as it struggles to strengthen its economy and its still young democratic institutions.


I should say that for me personally, the unexpected arrival of so many Poles in London has been almost entirely pleasurable, and sometimes helpful. I have had some construction repairs done by those highly skilled Polish workers, and it is fun to come across Polish speakers in some of my daily transactions or to buy, in the small Polish shops, items which for me are the food of pure nostalgia. Polish cultural institutions offer some wonderfully stimulating events; and eastern Europeans altogether bring to London an appealing energy and vivacity. Still, I admit that I have often felt perplexed by the willingness of so many of them to upend their lives and seek their fortune 'in the west', at a time when their region has emerged from its long period of repression and many new possibilities and opportunities have opened up.

It needs to be said that, for many immigrants, the purely economic calculations involved in their decision add up: they earn more here than they would at home - even if they often do so at the cost of considerable hardship and more ineffable losses: of a familiar world, a webwork of relationships, an ease of understanding others and of being understood.

But I wonder if the continuing mass movements of our time aren't also driven by a kind of subliminal migration myth - the fantasy, so easily stimulated in our globalised world, that life (to quote Kundera again) is elsewhere; that going to that elsewhere is our time's game of risk and exciting adventure - a bid not only for bettering one's conditions, but for some more definitive, if hard to define, transformation.

I recently had a conversation with a young woman whom I will call Magda, and whose experience is quite representative of many other eastern European immigrants to this country. She came here about a year ago with her seven-year-old son. Her partner works in construction; she tries to find as many jobs as she can cleaning houses. Her circumstances are not dismal. Unlike many eastern Europeans who live crowded together in shared rooms, she has a partner who makes a viable salary and they live in their own flat. But when I ask her about how she likes being here, she is less than enthusiastic. It's not what she expected - though what that was is difficult to pin down. I ask her why she decided to come in the first place. "To find something better", she says, "life was difficult there". "And is it better", I respond, "is it less difficult?" She shrugs. Not really. Everything is very expensive, she doesn't know the language, and "of course one misses everything back there. What's to say?" She shrugs again, and looks quite sad.

"Then why did you think it would be so preferable to live here?" I ask. Her answer is quite straightforward: "I was deceived", she says. By whom? Apparently she feels misled by the emigrants who preceded her, and who conveyed a much rosier picture of life here than was warranted. "People don't really want to tell the truth - that they're here, and don't have anything much to show for it".

Presenting a glamorised picture of your life is of course an old immigrant trope. But when I ask Magda what she tells people who are thinking of coming to the UK, she answers quite passionately. "I tell them the truth. When some of my friends ask me if they should come, I tell them they shouldn't. I don't want to lie to them".

Perhaps some of Magda's friends will be dissuaded from migrating by her reports; perhaps not. For Magda herself, the decision about whether to stay or go back will not be simple, no matter how disaffected she may feel here. Emigration, after all, still involves a big investment of hope, of planning, of declaring one's intentions. Going back often carries the stigma of defeat. Moving country may not be as dramatic, or traumatic, as it used to be; but changing your life is not always as easy - or as liberating - as might be imagined.


None of this is an argument for specific policies, or for restricting the hard-won freedom to travel within the EU (although controlling immigration numbers is another matter). But it seems to me that both in our public conversations and in our more theoretical reflections on this sensitive subject, we need to get away from our own polarised views ('for' or 'anti'); and to think in more complex ways about the experience of emigration - not only economic parameters, but its social, existential, and indeed human dimensions. In a certain vein of contemporary theory, nomadism, marginality and otherness were seen as the privileged and ennobling positions - holding the post-modern virtues of uncertainty, discontinuity, the fragmented self. But on this theoretical level as well, we need to acknowledge not only the critical advantages of being 'on the outside', but our need for attachments and meaningful connections; the desire most of us feel to live in a shared world with others, and to be engaged with them in shared projects.

On the macro level, if we are to sustain our troubled democracies, we need to care for them in common. We need to acknowledge the need for solidarity and even for the unfashionable virtue of loyalty. Writing in The Guardian shortly after the election of a worryingly conservative government in Poland, Timothy Garton Ash made the undoubtedly controversial suggestion that "more of the talented, energetic young Poles who have left the homeland to enjoy the freedoms of modern European life in countries such as Britain and Ireland should go back to help fortify a modern, liberal, European Poland. Personally, I love having them here as my students at Oxford, and as fellow Europeans in a Eurosceptic Britain; but if I may put it this way: 'Agnieszka and Pawel, your country needs you!'" Eastern Europe is a region where much remains to be done and where democratic freedoms - so ardently desired in their absence - need to be, once again, defended and fought for. It may yet turn out that participating in the challenging project of nurturing and building our own, often struggling societies, can be the richest form of experience and our time's most interesting adventure.

Eva Hoffman, the author of Lost in Translation and After Such Knowledge, is a former editor of The New York Times and currently Visiting Professor at the UCL European Institute.