Immigration: why Brussels will be blamed

Now asylum if you're gayLiberal Sweden elects an explicitly anti-immigrant party to parliament for the first time. France’s president and the European Commission lacerate each other in public over deportations of Roma. A former German central banker publishes a bestseller warning that immigration is diluting the nation’s human stock. And even Britain moves forward with plans to cap economic immigration. The last three weeks have been a startling illustration of how immigration has come to dominate European politics.

At first, the EU seemed only a marginal player in this drama. The European Commission cannot dictate how many immigrants member countries let in, how many refugees they accept or how host societies should integrate newcomers. EU powers over the issuing of work visas are limited. But, as the row between President Sarkozy and Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, demonstrates, the Union has become a central player in immigration policy, even when governments point to public safety to defend their actions. This is mainly because the Commission is legally obliged to protect the mobility rights of citizens under a ‘free movement’ directive agreed by governments in 2004. (The law aims to make sure that EU nationals can move to each others’ countries without the need for work or residency permits, a commitment originally laid down in the EU’s founding treaties.)

This responsibility is unlikely to make the EU any more popular with the public, however. It means EU law limits the powers of national governments to tighten immigration policy in response to popular demand during tough economic times. Britain, for example, will set a cap on the numbers of new immigrants coming to the UK starting next year. But the cap seems largely cosmetic, given that citizens from EU countries will continue to be able to seek work there under free movement rules. Voters tend to value control and security over the freedoms they either do not use or take for granted. And there are a number of reasons to think that – in the febrile political atmosphere created by the 2009 recession – they may begin to regard the EU as part of the problem rather than the solution to immigration challenges.

For starters, EU officials should remember that what they often doctrinally dismiss as merely ‘free movement’ is immigration in anyone else’s language, including Europe’s politicians. Tensions over immigrants were evident in Western Europe long before the onset of global recession. And they are bound to continue because the east-west European migration that followed the EU’s 2004-2007 enlargement has yet to run its course. Germany and Austria will lift transitional restrictions on the free movement of workers from eight Central and East European countries next year. All EU countries must do the same for Bulgaria and Romania by 2014.

Second, the Commission has plans to toughen up the application of EU rules on asylum seekers over the next two years. It will propose higher standards for the treatment and accommodation of refugees and access to the job market for those who wait a long time for their claims to be heard. But like few other issues, the cost of maintaining asylum seekers touches a very raw nerve, especially in countries that are faced with budgetary austerity. The Sweden Democrats owe their electoral success in part to widespread public concerns over the country’s recent generosity to thousands of Iraqi refugees. However high-minded the intention, the cost implications of the Commission’s proposals may further erode public support for the EU especially as governments are likely to portray such measures as being imposed by Brussels.

Third – as Commissioner Reding has already made clear in the case of France – she wants EU rules on free movement to be more strictly enforced in every member-state, and is prepared to take miscreant countries to court, if necessary. Reding’s zeal to apply the law is laudable: EU rules must be uniformly implemented across the 27 member-states to be effective. However she also risks opening a Pandora’s box of national discontent at the wrong time. Several EU countries grumble that the free movement directive is too broad in scope, especially after a 2008 court ruling expanded free movement rights even to non-EU nationals in certain circumstances. Faced with a further ultimatum by Reding, governments might be tempted to support a proposal from Italy to water down the directive and allow governments greater leeway to refuse residency based on economic circumstances or security concerns.

If the Commission refused to table such a draft, it might hand a political platform to far right and eurosceptic forces throughout the EU. On the other hand, the EU’s institutions have little choice but to stand firm in the face of pressure to compromise on free movement rights or to ignore their non-implementation. They believe – probably rightly – that if such freedoms were rescinded or weakened now, EU governments would not return to the status quo at a future date. Welcome to Europe’s battle over immigration and free movement. Appalled Swedish liberals, a floundering French president and an indignant European commissioner are just the opening salvos.

By Hugo Brady, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. Copyright Centre for European Reform.