5 things you need to know about Europe’s migration row

The European Union finds itself in a massive debate over migration. Ever since waves of migrants began arriving on the shores of Europe, states have given very different responses, ranging from a complete refusal to accept them, to criticism of countries that “don’t do their part.” In an effort to sort out the mess, the EU finds itself even more divided. Here are five brief points of what you need to know about Europe’s migration row.

1. Italy’s election has changed the narrative.

After Italy’s general election in March, the country has found itself with a coalition government, uniting the anti-establishment “Five Star Movement” with the far-right “Northern League”. This new government under the lead of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has made it clear that it wants a new EU narrative on the issue of migration. Italy, Spain and Greece have been hit the most by overwhelming arrivals of migrants, and many people in these countries feel as if they have been left with the problem.

Current EU rules, known as the Dublin Criteria, require migrants who attempt to apply for asylum to do so in the very first country in which they arrive. If they first arrive on a Greek island, yet continue onwards to Hungary, then they can be deported back to their place of arrival. Given that Greece in particular has been unable to provide basic services for many of these people, the grip on these rules had been loosened over time, which had anti-immigration proponents up in arms, because it meant that people who had entered the country illegally were now granted the chance of being allowed to stay regardless.

Most migrants are currently using the path through Libya, where human smugglers channel them across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, leaving small Italian towns to manage the situation. The Southern European country argues that member states should accept that some action needs to be taken outside of Europe to stop the problem at its root, and that there need to be facilities to check the “authenticity” of migrant claims before they enter official procedures. This is ultimately what the European Council announced after a summit at the end of June:  “controlled” migrant processing centres will be set up within Europe, which will swiftly distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and irregular migrants, who would then be deported. Furthermore, the EU will try to create facilities around the Northern African coast in order to stop migrants who just left Libya.

These concessions to Italy are very important for political reasons. When former British Prime Minister David Cameron approached Brussels in order to get concessions on immigration, he was turned away. This failure lead to Brexit. EU leaders seem determined to not let the same happen with Italy, where the EU’s low approval rating makes an Italexit plausible.

2. Germany’s ruling coalition is tearing itself apart.

Germany has been the most permissive country when it comes to allowing migrants on its soil. Even last year, when the number of new migrants was comparatively low, the country still recorded over 180,000 new arrivals. And yet, Italy’s pressure inside the European Union actually hasn’t seen Germany in opposition: Angela Merkel is under pressure by her own political situations at home. In last year’s elections, the far-right “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany) reached 8 percent of the vote, despite the fact that some of its prominent candidates advocate for shooting refugees at the border. But even Merkel’s decade-long ally, the Bavarian centre-right CSU (Christian-Social Union), has turned more anti-immigration in recent years and is demanding an end to system provisions that allow migrants to pick and choose which European country the want to stay in.

In previous fights, CSU Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer had claimed that he’d order migrants to be turned away from the German border, which was contrary to the intentions of Chancellor Merkel. However, Merkel’s internal fights have indeed overrun her after weeks of negotiation: the German government now intends to turn away migrants who were previously registered in other EU countries. This will spark new conflicts with the Social Democrat coalition partner SPD, but even more with Austria, who shares a 815-kilometer border with Germany.

3. Austria teams up with Central European nations against migration.

Only one day after the German government’s proposal to stop accepting migrants at the border, Austria reacted by stating it would close the border to to Germany and reinstate border checks. This would be contrary to the European Union’s Schengen agreement, but given the fact that Denmark has reinstated border checks with Germany, France checking ID at the airports, and Hungary having a massive EU-funded border fence with Croatia, this would hardly be a first. Whoever comes to Europe and expects open borders will probably have to cycle from Belgium to the Netherlands.

Austria’s opposition is hardly a surprise, given that it’s currently governed by a right-wing coalition, including the far-right Freedom Party. Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz was elected on the basis of a more hardline stance on immigration. In fact, Vienna is arguing for a system that would no longer allow asylum requests on European soil, even if this is likely to be contrary to European human rights charters. Austria is teaming up with other Central European nations critical of the EU’s migration policies, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. In a recent TV interview on the British Channel 4, Polish member of parliament Dominik Tarczyński proudly stated that his ruling majority would let no Muslim refugees inside the country, and that this would help protect the safety of Poland.

4. Macron’s obstructionist position.

French president Emmanuel Macron, who began his presidency in hope of reshaping the European Union with new high positions, transnational voting lists, and a budget for a governing body of the Eurozone (which regroups those member states that adopted the common currency, the Euro), finds himself bogged down in his efforts. Macron has played an ambiguous role in the current discussions on immigration. He’s been a vocal critic of the Italian government under Prime Minister Conte, yet offered no palpable solution to the problem. His stance on sanctioning Poland and his comments on “populism spreading across Europe like a disease,” which targeted Rome, won’t help advance his European reform agenda one bit. (In the European Union, changes need to be accepted unanimously.)

And France’s own record on migration isn’t spotless. In a recent humanitarian crisis, France refused to accept a ship (the Aquarius) packed with refugees, which had already been refused entry by Italy. In the end, Spain allowed the ship in its port in Valencia.

One thing seems clear: Emmanuel Macron’s position in the European migration debate is not helping to find actual solutions.

5. The European Union is losing the debate on migration.

The mere fact that the EU needs to wake up only now to find solutions on migration shows that the issue has been wilfully ignored since 2012. Until recently, member states were on the same ideological level, and the fact that some Central and Eastern European nations were reluctant to accept migrants was accepted as collateral damage. But now, Italy and Austria have turned right, and the UK is even less of a partner than it was before. As a result, the European Union is losing the debate on migration.

If EU member states were to agree on extra-European facilities off the coast of Africa, then that could still be a viable solution to the problem. However, states should agree on a rule for work permits within the Schengen area, while limiting the effect of welfare payments.

This way, the incentive to get to Europe would be clear: a safe haven that offers the opportunity to be integrated into a labor market. For this, it is true that all countries need to pull their strings, and make concessions on the number of people they’re willing to take. And for that reason, the issues regarding safety and religion need to be discussed honestly, and not only through the lens of “we’re patriots” vs. “you’re racists.”This is an issue that the European Union appears to be in a position to solve, if it remains determined to work on consensus. Before that can happen, however, the Emmanuel Macrons of Europe will need to put away their dreams of continental reform, and work on actual policy that affects people right now.


This article was published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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