Comment on Europe's migration policy

This post is archived. Opinions expressed herein may no longer represent my current views. Links, images and other media might not work as intended. Information may be out of date. For further questions contact me.

The European Union’s response to the influx of migrants and refugees is disjointed. Some Member States are more willing than others to welcome third country nationals, while each national government prioritises its own agenda on the matter. There is an impression that Europe is again being divided by an “iron curtain” of sorts, manifesting in the difference of opinion on whether to relocate and eventually integrate migrants and refugees.

There are legitimate arguments on both sides. Indeed there are humanitarian considerations to be made, and the EU always want to present itself as a paragon of morality. Yet there also exist real constraints. The capacity of each country to offer support to those people is finite, while the societies themselves are not always eager or prepared to cope with the concomitant cultural and economic change.

The fact that border controls are being reintroduced in the Schengen Area—an area free of internal borders—does not reveal an ethical divide, but a practical one. It is too simplistic to think of temporary measures to restore order as collective heartlessness, moral failure, racism, or whatnot. Conversely, it is pointless to praise an outright “open borders” approach that is otherwise unsustainable over the medium term.

Practicality, not morality

As the child of refugees (from the division of Cyprus), I would like to think that the relocation of asylum seekers is solely a moral issue. We have a humanitarian duty towards fellow humans, who have been rendered homeless by war, terrorism, or other calamities. While this may be a laudable ideal, it cannot be the sole criterion for making political decisions.

Available resources

At first, it does not answer whether there is an upper limit to the sheer number of entrants to the EU or to individual Member States. Is there no terminus? And if by chance there is, then what are its parameters? One may be the operational capacity of border control agencies, in terms of humanpower, financing, tools and materials. Another may be the available provisions for medicine, food, and decent living conditions at the host country. Lastly, the peculiarities of the economy and the society, whether it needs more foreign labour and of what kind, and whether it is prepared to go along the path of either multiculturalism or forced assimilation.

Even in Germany there now are growing concerns over the sustainability of Ms. Merkel’s approach on the matter. Apart from the incidents in Cologne, several people are voicing their scepticism over both the ability of their country to cope with the mounting number of entrants and with the added value they may offer to their economy, if any. As Wolfgang Münchau notes in his latest column at the Financial Times:

It is tempting to think of refugees and migrants as a new source of labour. But in this case this just is not true, at least not for now. The majority of those who arrive in Germany lack the skills needed in the local labour market. They will enter the low wage sector of the economy, and drive down wages, producing another deflationary shock. This is the last thing Germany and the eurozone need right now.

EU bureaucracy

A second factor in this discussion is the institutional limitations of the European Union. It is readily apparent that the Schengen Agreement has failed miserably to provide sufficient policy instruments for managing the Union’s external borders. Every Member State is expected to control its own external borders, even when they overlap with those of the Schengen Area. This ends up placing a disproportionate burden on entry countries, such as Greece and Italy.

Apart from border issues, the EU does not have adequate means for formulating a coherent migration policy: what to do with migrants and refugees and how to do it. The Dublin regulation (Dublin III) establishing the criteria over which countries are obliged to examine applications for asylum, has long been de facto suspended under the pressure of its own inefficiencies and contradictions, as well as the unprecedented rise in the volume of migration from third countries.

Meanwhile, based on January 18 data (pdf) from the European Commission (see press release), EU Member States have thus far relocated from Italy 240 refugees out of 39,600 and 82 from Greece out of 66,400. One may wonder about the underlying assumptions—or indeed the purpose—of such high targets when delivery is particularly low.

Whatever rules and plans are in place are either insufficient or inappropriate for their stated ends. The Commission has announced its intention to propose new legislation that will include, among others, a semi-automatic system for evenly allocating the burden of adjustment. Each Member State will be assigned a “distribution key” (a percentage) based on a set of criteria. While the specifics of that proposal remain to be seen, one may expect that:

  • the constraints that keep relocation numbers at such pitiful levels will not be dismantled solely by the introduction of this piece of law;
  • Member States that already are against the idea of binding quotas will try to restate their objections and even attempt to block further progress;
  • implementation will require a lot of time to be realised, which practically means that the current issues will be addressed with the use of existing instruments.


The third factor is the very nature of the bond that holds the EU together: the spirit of consensus. The Union is, above all, a derivative organisation that is contingent on the collective will of its Member States. Without there being a certain harmony between national governments there is no European integration to speak of.

The implication is that as the EU currently stands it is of paramount importance to reach a compromise agreement rather than waste time on meaningless blame games or indeed try to preempt the opposition’s action and circumvent its demands by proposing new legislation.

[also read: Is the European Union a republic?]

Europe’s heterogeneity

A fourth consideration to be made is political and two-fold: (1) it has to do with the EU’s self-image as an impeccable moral agent, and (2) with the differences in opinion between peoples that have had separate historical-cultural trajectories and perceive of both the issue and their own identity in different ways.

With regard to the former, the Union has a whole range of lofty values that do indeed appear great on paper. The problem is that text on some official document does not magically render limitless the capacities of a political organisation, nor does it automatically mould social attitudes and economic requirements in its own image.

As for the latter, the truth is that the Union is a heterogeneous whole, made up of nations that have their own priorities and aspirations. Either we like it or not, the EU is first and foremost an economics club. This is made manifest in the contrast between the degree of integration achieved on the Economic and Monetary Union relative to any other area of policy. The EU does not have the equivalent of economic governance on, say, civil liberties and fundamental rights. Also and in being a largely economic organisation, the EU is still not underpinned by a European demos, a common sense of belonging and togetherness.

Political participation

Finally, the relocation of third country nationals is only one part of the story. The other is their actual participation in the social, cultural, economic, and political life of their host country. It is to the long term detriment of a nation to absorb migrants under the pretense of morality, or some short-to-medium term economic need or a mere legal obligation, only to eventually concentrate and marginalise them in effective ghetto areas.

As we have witnessed with the jihad-inspired Paris attacks and the surge in Europe’s homegrown religious fundamentalists, social exclusion or a widespread sense of segregation that is based on ethnic or religious grounds can be a factor in making individuals prone to radicalisation.

[also read: Can Europe defeat ISIS? Should it?]

This is not to suggest that today’s migrants are tomorrow’s terrorists. That would be presumptuous and indeed xenophobic. It only goes to point out the full extent of a country’s obligations, especially concerning its commitment to bring foreigners into its body politic. It also is a kind reminder that migrants are not mere “human capital”. They too want to lead a life of fulfillment, free from fear, prejudice, and [often silent] exclusion. And it ultimately means that if a country ardently refuses to foster multiculturalism, then it should not be forced to. A society that is unwilling to tolerate any element it considers alien is one that will make sure it isolates that element.

Lower the expectations

It is for these reasons that I tend to treat the issues of asylum and migration as primarily technical rather than ethical. Moral values guide human action, yet action is not realised in the neat conditions of a thought experiment, but within a certain case: a state of affairs whose interoperating factors impose constraints and difficult trade-offs.

Pragmatism of this sort cannot be an excuse for a failure to act when action is possible, nor can it be a reason for remaining silent in the face of Europe’s incoherent reaction to the influx of migrants and refugees. It only implies that one’s adamant stance has to account for the specifics, and has to be aligned with the realisable rather than the desirable.

What the facts do tell us is that the EU has a strong tendency to place high targets and to raise the moral standard well beyond what appears to be achievable. This practice does not work. It seems as though the EU is trying to wish away any real issue and to pretend that mere intent is sufficient for addressing the matter at hand.

Migration is one of the most sensitive areas of policy. It already is a multifaceted phenomenon on a technical level, ranging from border management to integration in the host country. It becomes rather complex once we factor in all the relevant social, cultural, economic, political and institutional considerations. The gist is that as things currently stand there will be a lot of bargaining and indecision at the European Council before any practicable compromise is reached. Until then we will continue to witness this kind of desperate “free for all” approach from national government, with the victims usually being those Europe is supposed to protect.