Friday, April 08, 2011

The June European Council: Migrants on their minds

by Hugo Brady

In June, EU leaders will meet in Brussels for their next quarterly summit chaired by Council President Herman Van Rompuy. Some of them – Britain's David Cameron and France's Nicolas Sarkozy – are currently fighting a war in Libya. Others, like Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi, are facing political upheaval at home. European leaders from both north and south 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 focus the forthcoming meeting 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. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, is adamant that his country needs help to manage a "human tsunami" from Libya and Tunisia. Berlusconi's demands for “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 island of Lampedusa and in the mainland region of Puglia. The EU has committed money, a humanitarian mission and border guards from its Frontex border agency. Nonetheless, the Italians want more help. The country’s ‘realist’ immigration policy – heavily reliant on co-operation with dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi and Tunisia’s Ben Ali – is in tatters following EU-supported uprisings.

EU refugee rules say that migrants who claim asylum must be accepted by the first member country they reach. Exceptions can only be made in an emergency if overwhelming numbers suddenly arrive en masse. Although 20,000 is a large number of people, it is nowhere near the influx that followed the 1999 Kosovo war. Then, Albanian Kosovars fled to Western Europe in their hundreds of thousands leading EU governments to provide for some deviation to the first-country-of-arrival rule. Furthermore, several North 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 demanded by Italy, Malta and some other Mediterranean member-states.

Second, European leaders back an EU immigration policy only in so far as it means tighter border controls and more repatriation. To satisfy this demand, the European Commission has proposed giving Frontex more powers and is due to publish in 2012 a raft of legislation intended to upgrade Schengen area border controls with new technology. EU countries have little interest in the Commission’s other ideas to facilitate more legal immigration, however. This was true even when Europe’s economic conditions were favourable and unemployment relatively low. But 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.

Third, EU leaders have discussed all of these issues before and achieved little. In 2008, they signed a European 'migration pact' at the urging of France, when summit agendas were still set by a different rotating presidency every six months. The pact declared that the free movement of people between EU countries and the existence of the Schengen area of passport-free travel meant that national immigration policies must also be linked. The text committed all member-states to tighter border controls and more repatriation of immigrants illegally resident on their territories. But – like the Union for the Mediterranean agreed the same year – the pact'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 at home and the high quality of life in Europe, and demand for cheap labour. And even enlightened policies aimed at discouraging emigration from migrants' home countries – trade liberalisation and development aid – tend to produce ambiguous effects. Conditions improve in the poorer country but so too does the mobility of its people and their aspiration for a better life abroad.

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. In the immigration context, this would mean that EU countries need to work together much more pro-actively to prevent future migratory pressures endangering free movement and passport-free travel. One idea would be to create bilateral partnerships between EU countries that struggle to maintain the external border and those that 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 whether the creation of a European border guard – EU officials with powers to direct Schengen country border controls – might be necessary.

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 annual budget. With inward migration to Europe more likely to rise than fall in the coming years, President Van Rompuy could propose to the assembled leaders that they agree now to double the amount of money allocated to these funds in the next EU multi-annual budget for 2014-2021.

Lastly, Van Rompuy could 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 citizens of a country that, in return, collaborates 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 that do not. By encouraging neighbouring countries to treat their own refugees better, the EU would begin to extend the concept of mutual responsibility beyond its own borders. When ready, Libya too should be offered this choice.

The president of the European Council might consider these initiatives too piecemeal to offer to EU leaders as solutions to their immigration worries. They do not amount to a grand European bargain on migration. But, as he watches the black cars pull up in June, Van Rompuy might recall a favourite motto of Pope John 23rd: "See all. Forgive much. Change a little."

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

1 comment:

james said...

I would probably use a calling card if I visited internationally. Cellphone connections just sound so bad it's worth it to get a card and not have to deal with the interruptions. Nice work.