Crisis-Ridden EU Summit Fudges Could Become a Trojan Horse
BRUSSELS — “Kick the can down the road,” “muddle through,” and “fudge a deal” are among the most frequently used metaphors describing the regular EU summits of the past ten crises-ridden years. Domestic politics of one country or another take the centerpiece for a few days and sap collective European ability to overcome the major overlapping fractures which have become festering wounds. We are distracted from the key challenges on the European agenda due to reckless domestic politics and cheap wins, which underscores how far removed the current mainstream leadership is from tackling the risks of the age of Brexit and Trump.
On migration policy the EU has collectively proven unwilling to find an agreement on a humane, rights-abiding, and equitable asylum policy. Unable to do so, it is wasting time and money on initiatives that will fail to do what they promise: stop global mobility and flows of refugees moving in Europe’s direction. The EU and its member states have already invested billions in securitizing their external borders through surveillance, fences, and supporting the border guard services of other countries. But they will now do more of this, rather than addressing the key internal disagreements. Securitizing the border and making unholy deals with third countries do not prevent people from seeking a better life in Europe. Both tactics have failed — and failed to keep the emerging far right at bay.
The proposal for the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework for the period 2021–2027 makes a three-fold increase in spending for migration and asylum, but the bulk of those increases are for border management rather than toward designing new approaches to see mobility as a feature of development and economic growth. There is no indication that these tough external measures will at least serve the purpose of saving free movement of people within the Schengen zone, as the German coalition government’s post-Summit flight about controls at the German border clearly demonstrated.
The pitfall is that appeasing right-wing populists with restrictive migration policies does not work: militarized borders cannot stop global mobility and the far-right is simply getting stronger. Italy’s center-left government made a tough deal with Libya in February 2017 to limit migrant arrivals. The deal alienated many of its voters who care about the fate of migrants and failed to stop the seismic shift towards an anti-immigration platform. In other words, toying with tough migration policies does not even pay off electorally.
The successful capturing of the migration agenda by anti-immigrant voices, is unnecessarily preventing alternative policy options to govern mobility from emerging. The political context stifles other views of migration to be sketched. Mobility is a fact of life, and has historically been a driver of economic development. Yet Europe is not investing in turning migration into an opportunity. There is repeated rhetoric about investing on a partnership with Africa, but too little policy and resources are being devolved to making global migration an opportunity for economic development in Europe and in the countries of origin. This is to the expense of improving Europe’s internal preparedness to the inflow of more refugees following the next conflict we fail to prevent. And, of course it is also at the expense of creating legal channels to encourage a better match between needs and demands. Both these overall goals require public investments in hospitality, education, health services, culture, language training, housing, and economic infrastructure at the local level in those areas which are willing to rejuvenate their economies through immigration and new economic opportunities.
The June 2018 summit also showed how brittle intergovernmentalism and centralization are in the hands of the head of state or government. During this decade of crisis management, key decisions have come to depend on the acrobatic ability of leaders to juggle electoral competition with long-term and even epoch-making issues, such as eurozone reform, the impact of the United States on global trade, NATO, European security, and Brexit — to name a few.
Migration has not just become the area where the far right gets quick and easy victories regardless of the nature of the challenge. It can also be the Trojan horse through which the Eurosceptic right undermines the project of European integration more broadly by capitalizing on the system’s own vulnerabilities. The migration debate has become a proxy for very different views on national sovereignty and the role of the EU, on democratic legitimacy in an integrated Europe and a globalized world. Powerful pushes toward nationalism are visible in a growing number of governments and electorates responding to such rhetoric, and are being played out in the European Council. Ultimately their nationalist agendas are incompatible and prone to conflict. But exposing this reckless trend requires some courage, and certainly will not happen through fudged deals.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.