There’s one major perk of globalization that only applies to rich people

If you can’t climb over it, tear it down.
If you can’t climb over it, tear it down.
Image: Reuters
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Today may be the beginning of the end of globalization as we know it—at least in the West. On April 12, the European Commission proposed new visa requirements for US and Canadian travelers.

For years, Americans and most Europeans have been free to flit back and forth across the Atlantic without giving paperwork a second thought. Thanks to a reciprocal visa waiver program, all they needed at border control was basic identification. This facilitated a certain kind of lifestyle: Old and New Worlds on demand, with impromptu adventures abroad and regular business trips all within a few hours of flight. After neighboring Mexico and Canada, Europe was the top regional destination for US travelers last year. But as Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney wrote this weekend, our children may come of age in a different era.

Despite these visa waiver programs, the US and Canada have long discriminated against EU citizens from a handful of countries. Today the EU Commission, Europe’s executive arm, retaliated by asking for the EU Parliament and Council to take positions on temporarily suspending visa-free travel for US and Canadian citizens. For a variety of reasons, the suspension is unlikely to go through. But it’s worth thinking about, because the EU’s challenge points to a deep hypocrisy in how globalization works today.

For 10 years, the US has refused to extend its visa waiver program (VWP) to poorer EU member states Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Croatia, Cyprus, and Poland. The EU Commission argues that citizens of these countries pose no more migration or security threat than anyone else, but US State Department officials say those countries haven’t met the VWP requirements, which include certain security standards and “a visitor (B) visa refusal rate of less than three percent,” according to the Department of State website.

Visitor visas are usually denied to people who seem like they might want to stay in the US long-term—often because they are poor, or unemployed, or have overstayed past visas. One in three Romanians are “not being able to afford items considered to be desirable or even necessary to lead an adequate life,” according to the World Bank, and Bulgarian and Romanian visa refusal rates are in the double digits.

A few years ago, a Romanian friend of mine asked her family to attend her graduation at an elite college in Massachusetts. Her mother, a respected engineer who like many Romanians is now unemployed, was denied the visa to come. ”The [US embassy] treated her like a kid,” my friend, who now works at Harvard, told me. “She felt naked and disrespected—judged for being poor, even though we had proof of return and of lodging etc.” Romanian officials say inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program is one of Bucharest’s ”major objectives.”

Visa applications are annoying and costly, and can add weeks of prep time to travel plans. If the EU made good on its threat, its tourism industry and trans-Atlantic business interests would most certainly suffer, not to mention millions of travelers on both sides. In light of the financial and geopolitical consequences, is it really wise for Europe to make this stand for the least of its members?

The answer is yes, for a more free and open world in the future.

For more than two decades, the West has advocated open borders, free trade, and free communication all around the world. The idea is to make the world’s populations richer, safer, and smarter. But the real substance of global interconnectedness has been achieved through openings in everything but travel.

Increased internet penetration allows an instantaneous exchange of ideas across great distances. Logistics technologies allow foreign goods to zip between producers and consumers all around the world. Telecommunications improvements allow intellectual labor to be outsourced, and trade agreements to usuing factories to laborers. These changes have been broadly beneficial, as Larry Summers writes for the Washington Post:

This broad program of global integration has been more successful than could reasonably have been hoped. We have not had a war between major powers. Global standards of living have risen faster than at any point in history. And material progress has coincided with even more rapid progress in combating hunger, empowering women, promoting literacy and extending life.

Actual freedom of movement, however, has remained a privilege of the wealthy. Borders have fallen, but mostly between wealthy nations. People from rich countries (or rich people from poor countries) seeking new economic opportunities or self-improvement will see visa requirements waived, and even passports offered for purchase. But with a few merit-based exceptions, poor people who try to do the same are called economic migrants, and doors are slammed shut in their faces.

This inconsistency—you might even call it an injustice—between people who can go anywhere and those who can’t get a visa to save their lives, isn’t a racism problem or even a nationalism problem, though those are exacerbating factors. It’s a flaw in the construction of globalization itself.

One of the most iconic images of our open-world ideology is the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what could have been an opportunity to cement freedom of movement, association, and opportunity as global human rights instead became a symbol of the triumph of capitalism over communism. To this day, the notion of a world without walls is often framed in terms of trade and profit flows. This way of thinking has resulted, however inadvertently, in creating two different kinds of globalization: one for the rich, and another for the poor.

That’s why Brussels’s challenge is an interesting one: It frames visa-free travel as a political right belonging to the entire European bloc, rather than an individual privilege. The idea follows a 2013 EU resolution to act as one unified body, in matters of external policy: “Full visa reciprocity is an objective which the Union should pursue in a proactive manner in its relations with third countries, thus contributing to improving the credibility and consistency of the Union’s external policy.”

In light of current economic and migrant crises, as well as a potential Brexit, proof of the EU’s credibility and consistency is incredibly important right now. The EU is hardly a perfect model of open external borders. And yet the demand that the US reconsider its visa policy because all EU member states are equal offers a tantalizing glimpse of a rights-based approach to globalization, at a critical time.

Of course, a face-off with the US is unlikely to end in new visa requirements for Americans or a change to America’s own visa waiver program (VWP) requirements. This isn’t the first time the EU has threatened the US with visa restrictions.

But it’s a crack in the wall.