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Open the Borders – Phillipe Legrain at FODI 2016

Zoe Stojanovic-Hill saw some dangerous ideas and lived to tell the tale

Photo credit: Prudence Upton

My Serbian grandfather’s migration story was a silly story about the steak that sold him. “When I first arrive in Australia,” he told me, “I am very hungry. I go to the café, the restaurant, for the food and the man he gives me the biggest steak. It was THIIIISSSSS BIG! So I think, I will stay in this country. This country is good.”

Aside from the Indigenous owners of the land, every Australian is implicated in some sort of migration story. And, according to Phillipe Legrain, these stories are a cause for celebration.

“Migration is not just about desperation, it is about aspiration,” he declared during his talk at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. He argued that strict immigration controls are not normal, reasonable or necessary. Opening the borders to migrants, including refugees, is not only humane – it is economically sensible.

Legrain’s speech was a series of polished lines and pithy observations. (“In some countries,” he noted, “it is easier to bring in your foreign pet than your foreign partner”). He was fond of grand extrapolation – apparently, abolishing border controls will double the size of the world economy and solve a battery of social ills.

My overall impression can be summed up by the tired cliché: this sounds good…Too good. During the Q&A one audience member described Legrain’s vision as “utopian,” and I agree. His prime example of functional, peaceful, open borders was the E.U. but, as another audience member pointed out, he failed to address how the ‘global refugee crisis’ has produced social discord within and between E.U. states. Instead, he offered us this testimony: “I can hereby confirm that European society has not collapsed.” A surplus of lofty claims and a deficit of hard facts made his argument seem like thought-provoking fiction, not foreign policy.

If his aim was to cultivate curiosity, however, he succeeded. I would encourage anyone who sympathises with roving families in search of safety to pull a Hermione Granger and do some further reading; ‘dangerous ideas’ can be found in the Restricted Section of the library. I’ll meet you there. Legrain’s ideas felt embryonic. I want to see how they evolve.

Legrain’s greatest success was making the audience reflect on how we benefit from the inherently unequal relationships of globalised capitalism – what he called a “system of global apartheid.” He stressed that while mobility is in theory a human right, in practice it remains “the privilege of a few.” Legrain was not trying to make us feel guilty for simply having privilege. He seemed to say: Privilege is a resource. Use it well.

I left the theatre feeling uncertain and inspired – worried that this angelic ray of sunshine would reveal itself to be the spluttering artificial light of false hope, but eager to get informed. The phrase ‘open the borders’ is a simplification; proposing that immigration controls are not-at-all necessary is an exaggeration. But his aim was to “make the campaign for freedom-of-movement the anti-slavery campaign of the 21st Century,” and people do not mobilise behind complex discussion points.