Eurocrisis? Libie? Nee, eurotop draait om migranten

Een bijdrage van Hugo Brady, senior research fellow aan het Centre for European Reform.

wachten in lampedusaIn June, EU leaders arrive in Brussels for a meeting of the European Council, the quarterly summits presided over by former Belgian prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy. Some – Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy – are fighting a war in Libya. Others, like Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi, are fighting political upheaval at home. Northern and Southern European leaders alike are watching anxiously as the markets continue to pound the euro. But everyone – apart perhaps from the newer members to the east – is worried about immigration. Hence, if events allow, Van Rompuy wants to leave the troubled currency aside to focus on border control, immigration and refugee policy.

This could easily become a bad tempered, inconclusive affair. First, the summit is supposed to take a broad strategic view of EU immigration and asylum policies. But instability in North Africa will inevitably skew discussion towards the present. Italy is adamant that it needs help to manage what it calls a “human tsunami” from Tunisia and Libya. Demands for greater “solidarity” from fellow EU countries essentially mean their agreement to take in some of the 20,000 or so migrants currently housed in tent camps on the islands of Lampedusa and Sicily and in the mainland region of Puglia. The EU has committed money, a humanitarian mission and border guards from Frontex, its border agency. Nonetheless, the Italians feel entitled to more. The EU-supported rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and the Tunisian uprising against President Ben Ali have left its realist immigration policy, heavily reliant on the two dictators, in tatters.

But EU refugee rules say that migrants who claim asylum must be accepted by the first member country they reach. Exceptions can be made in an emergency if overwhelming numbers suddenly arrive en masse. Although 20,000 is a large amount of people, it is nowhere near the influx that followed the 1999 Kosovo war. Then, the arrival of 350,000 Albanian Kosovars led EU governments to provide for some deviation to the first-country-of-arrival rule. Furthermore, several Northern European countries – including, in this instance, France – typically accept more asylum seekers than Italy, both proportionately and in overall numbers. As it stands, the current situation will not prompt the re-think that most Mediterranean member-states want.

Second, European leaders are for an EU immigration policy only if it means tighter border controls and more repatriation. Accordingly, the European Commission is due to publish a raft of legislation intended to upgrade Schengen area border controls in early 2012 and has already proposed giving Frontex more powers. There is an irony here: the creation of more legal migration routes into the EU, like a single European residency permit, would greatly strengthen the Commission’s hand in negotiations with neighbouring countries on border checks and the return of unauthorised immigrants. EU countries had no interest in such schemes even when economic conditions were favourable and unemployment relatively low, however. Furthermore, the summit can contribute little to seemingly urgent national debates over multiculturalism in countries like Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. Since every culture integrates different newcomers in its own way, there is little added value in devoting a few extra paragraphs of a summit communique to the subject.

Third, EU leaders have discussed all of these issues before and achieved little. In 2008, they signed off on a European ‘migration pact’ at the urging of France, when summit agendas were still set by a different country every six months. The pact declared that free movement between EU countries and the Schengen area of passport-free travel meant national immigration policies must also be linked. Under the pact, all member-states committed to toughening up border controls and stepping up the repatriation of migrants illegally resident on their territories. But – like the Union for the Mediterranean agreed the same year – the agreement’s confident language and forthright assertions failed to make much difference in practice.

Given that several EU leaders are vulnerable to political challenges at home from the far-right, the temptation to push immigration policy upwards to the European level is understandable. But the idea that ‘Europe’ will help to reduce illegal immigration dramatically is largely an illusion. An EU immigration policy will not of itself drastically decrease the numbers of unskilled migrants arriving on European shores or over-staying tourist visas. Immigration trends are driven by so-called push and pull factors: disparities of wealth, the contrast between instability abroad and the high quality of life in Europe, and demand for cheap labour. Even enlightened policies aimed at discouraging migration by improving conditions in the migrants’ home countries – trade liberalisation and development aid – tend to produce the opposite effect. Local mobility increases as does the aspiration for a better life abroad.

Trade liberalisation seems likely only to be a future bargaining chip for managing increasing levels of immigration better. Take the EU’s high tariffs on food imports. These act as a push factor in North Africa by forcing some of the population to seek employment on the other side of the Mediterranean. The upshot is that North African governments refuse to sign repatriation deals without freer trade. As a Moroccan government minister told EU representatives at a meeting on migration and development in 2010: “either you take our tomatoes or you take our people, it’s up to you.” But Southern European countries – including, in this instance, France – would certainly oppose the lowering of such trade barriers. In any case, it will be some time before the region is ready to conclude a NAFTA-style free trade agreement with the EU.

With maddening constraints like these, what can Van Rompuy credibly hope to achieve in June? To start with, he can try to steer the talks away from demands for ‘solidarity’ to a concept he has stressed during the eurozone crisis: “mutual responsibility”. This would mean that EU countries need to work together much more pro-actively on immigration issues to prevent future migratory pressures endangering free movement and passport-free travel. One idea would be to create bi-lateral partnerships between EU countries that struggle to maintain the external border and those which have resources to spare or face less migratory pressure. These partnerships would involve core teams of experts with the relevant skills being seconded to external border countries for long periods. In addition, Van Rompuy could open a debate on the circumstances under which a European border guard – a new breed of Schengen area official with the power to direct national controls – might be authorised.

The EU has four funds for helping member-states to return illegal immigrants, integrate minorities, care for refugees and maintain modern border controls. Taken together, these account for 0.5 per cent (around €550 million) of the EU’s overall budget. With inward migration to Europe more likely to rise than fall in the coming years, Van Rompuy could propose to the assembled leaders that they agree now to double the size of these funds in the next EU budget for 2013-2020. The money should be trimmed off the agricultural budget.

Lastly, President Van Rompuy could also take forward calls from Germany for the EU to conclude ‘mobility partnerships’ on immigration with Egypt and Tunisia. These are agreements – managed by the European Commission – whereby some EU countries offer temporary work visas to sending countries in exchange for closer collaboration on border checks and repatriation. Here Van Rompuy could go further and propose that those countries that adhere in practice to UN accords banning the use of torture and providing for refugee protection would be entitled to much more generous terms than those which do not. By laying the ground work for a European-style refugee system in neighbouring countries, the EU would begin to extend mutual responsibility beyond its own borders. When ready, Libya should also be offered this choice.

The president of the European Council might consider these initiatives rather piecemeal as he watches the black cars pull up to the EU’s Justus Lipsius building in June. Certainly, they do not amount to a grand European bargain on migration. But when it comes to nudging countries with conflicting interests to work together on immigration, Mr Van Rompuy might also recall a favourite motto of Pope John 23rd: “See all. Forgive much. Change a little.”

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