Time the EU Took a Rational, Strategic Approach to Migration

Giles Merritt | 1 July 2018

© 2018 SCER

A problem postponed is not a problem solved, and that’s likely to be the verdict of most migration policy experts on last week’s European Council. The consensus view is certain to be that EU leaders have merely kicked the can down the road.

The “deal” they struck after their marathon all-night negotiation doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Its core is an agreement to push ahead with the building of camps – variously described as control centres or disembarkation platforms – in which asylum seekers would be processed.

The mid-year EU summit’s top priority on the immigration dossier was to avoid a leadership crisis in Berlin. The challenge over border controls on migrants to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s authority from within her Bavarian CSU coalition partner could lead to serious political volatility that further destabilises the EU.

Immigration very clearly risks developing into a chronic threat to European solidarity. It is therefore high time that EU governments defused its explosive elements by taking a far more strategic look at the many complex questions raised by push factors in Africa and the Arab world, and pull factors within Europe itself.

So while member states wrangle over the details of the proposed holding camps for refugees and others, they should also be initiating a study that could lead to a common European migration strategy stretching to mid-century.

Those details, incidentally, will be far from easy to resolve. Such holding camps aren’t new, and were discredited, not least due to the conditions in the camps, when they were called ‘hot spots’ in Greece three years ago. They were and are widely reviled as flouting the EU’s values. And if the idea is to construct them on the shores of the southern Mediterranean, that has already been opposed by most of the relevant governments as well as by UN agencies.

The European Commission will doubtless be saddled with the unhappy responsibility of finding a way through these difficulties. In parallel, it should be launching a comprehensive analysis of migration pressures, including Europe’s demographic needs, that EU member governments should be asked to endorse.

Immigration has become Europe’s high-stakes political football, with populist parties the only goal scorers. Two points stand out from this; first, that mainstream governments will be picked off one by one at election time if they don’t have the protection of a common migration policy.

Second, that the way to create a common policy, after more than thirty years of thinking it too hot to handle, is to introduce rational arguments into what has so far been an emotional shouting match. Until Europe’s opinion formers have reliable facts and figures at their finger tips, discussion will remain centred on short-sighted non-solutions like the building of higher EU external walls.

A more balanced assessment of migration would focus on ageing Europe’s need for younger workers, and the social, political and industrial policies that might integrate less educated and often unskilled newcomers into the European economy and the EU’s different national cultures.

There’s no getting away from most EU countries’ urgent labour needs. Without sustained immigration, there will be increasingly serious labour shortages that in turn depress tax revenues and provoke dramatic pensions crises. There are at present about four workers in the EU’s active labour force for each pensioner, and by 2050 that ratio will have shrunk to only 2:1.

The auguries for a clear-sighted picture of the factors that should shape an EU migration strategy are not encouraging. It is more than a decade since former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez chaired a wise men’s group that reported on Europe’s looming demographic problems, and his findings were ignored. He warned that something like 100 million newcomers to Europe would be required by mid-century, but EU governments preferred to downplay this political dynamite.

The elements of such a strategy are complex, not to say hugely muddled. Argument rages, for instance, over the preference to be given to refugees and the barriers to be erected against economic migrants. Europe’s humanitarian responsibilities are incontrovertible, of course, but there’s also clear research evidence that job-seeking economic migrants make a far greater economic contribution to their host country.

The European Union and an overwhelming majority of its governments have a strong self-interest in getting the debate over migration onto a firmer footing. Arguing over border controls and burden-sharing imperils the EU’s values and freedoms, and renders mainstream parties vulnerable to opportunistic populists. With the populations of both Africa and the Arab world due to double by mid-century, this isn’t a problem that’s going conveniently to go away.

Giles MerrittGiles Merritt | Twitter

Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt is founder and Chairman of the think tank Friends of Europe and its policy journal, Europe’s World. He was foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and is Advisory Board member of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.