Migration remains Europe’s greatest challenge

The political atmosphere in Europe has created a contest between empathetic liberalism and populist illiberalism.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Lightning-rod issue. A boat carrying migrants is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar, on September 8.  (AFP)
Lightning-rod issue. A boat carrying migrants is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar, on September 8. (AFP)

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that, as of November 2, 103,482 migrants had arrived in Europe in 2018. Spain, Greece, Italy and Cyprus were the main points of disembarkation. Guinea, Syria, Morocco, Mali and Iraq were the origins of nearly half of them.

Europe is on track to record the fewest number of migrants since 2013, confirming a downward trend from the peak of more than 1 million migrant arrivals in 2015, the year that sparked Europe’s “immigration crisis” and when immigration became the lightning-rod issue in European politics, displacing fiscal and monetary issues as the greatest threat to the European project.

With an approximately 90% reduction in migrant arrivals since 2015, Europe’s immigration crisis is over, right?


While not capturing the searing headlines of recent years, the plight of migrants trying to enter Europe — and the European response — remains the greatest threat to the stability and unity of the European Union.

First, much of the damage is done: The migrant crisis of 2015 was a major contributor to the rise of right-wing, ethno-nationalist populism across Europe. While those 1 million migrants represented a tiny fraction of the European Union’s total population of more than 500 million, the issue played into the narratives of nationalists, Islamophobes and racists.

The surge in popularity of politicians such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the announcement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the end of her political career is in sight can all be attributed in large part to anxieties created by immigration and manipulated by cynical politicians.

Second, the immigration issue, in the words of former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, “straddles every fault line: between country and community, between security and openness, between national and European identity, between social values and economic or strategic interests.” Every European schism is reflected in the immigration issue.

Palacio’s argument was apparent in June during the plight of the MS Aquarius, a ship operated by a Franco-German charity that had rescued 630 migrants off the coast of Libya. Italy refused to allow the Aquarius to dock at an Italian port; Malta followed suit.

Finally, Spain allowed the ship to dock and its human cargo to disembark but the saga revealed starkly the centripetal forces at play in Europe and the disunity of the union. Regardless of the number of immigrants during any given year, more Aquarius-like events will further erode the European project.

Palacio, writing in June for Project Syndicate, pointed out that the European Union, like many bureaucracy-heavy institutions, often gets by on inertia — doing nothing and waiting for circumstances to change. “But,” she argued, “given the urgency of today’s migration crisis, not even the EU will be able to muddle through. If it tries, the issue will only fester, eating away at the Union’s very foundations. For once, Europe’s leaders have no choice but to put up or shut up.”

What does “put up” mean?

Palacio favours the establishment of “disembarkation” platforms outside Europe to determine which migrants should be granted asylum and to which European countries they should be dispatched.

Palacio’s objective is sensible: It relieves countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain from the pressure of being front-line disembarkation points. However, it requires willing partners outside of Europe, specifically North African countries that have resisted the idea.

It also risks being abused: Australia operates such off-shore platforms in Nauru and Papua New Guinea where migrants have been known to languish for years.

Similarly, Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council of Foreign Relations, argued that “instead of focusing on fantasies like sealing borders or building reception centres in Libya, the EU should improve and speed up asylum procedures in Greece and Italy to make sure that the legal status of migrants is quickly clarified [and] make a serious offer — involving legal channels of migration, financial aid and security cooperation — to countries of origin in exchange for their readiness to take back citizens who were denied asylum in Europe.”

The challenge to Buras’s proposal, which appeared in June on a Carnegie Europe website, is that the political atmosphere in Europe has created a contest between empathetic liberalism and populist illiberalism. Populists have little interest in providing foreign aid to origin countries; they would prefer to seal borders.

Shada Islam, director of policy at the Brussels-based Friends of Europe, also quoted by Carnegie Europe, said Europeans must recognise that: 1) neither migration nor populists’ opposition to it are going to end; 2) ageing Europe needs immigrants for fiscal and labour-shortage reasons and; 3) managing migration requires cooperation — no country can do it alone.

The stakes are high. Islam writes: “Europe’s future as a union of values hinges on whether it can craft a sensible, pragmatic and compassionate immigration policy.”