The refugee crisis may not break the EU, but it will upend the postwar European political order.
Each age has its own fears. Much like the specter of climate change haunts the imagination of many today, and the arms race kept people sleepless in the 1980s, the ‘population bomb’ was the doomsday scenario of choice in the 1970s. Clever people like Norman Borlaug, Aldous Huxley, Richard Dawkins and Arthur Koestler all dreaded the day when humanity would outgrow its subsistence base and the Malthusian mechanisms of war, famine and pestilence would come into play.
This bleak scenario has, of course, been debunked by progress. Changes in how we farm, how we produce and how we live has made most societies capable of absorbing larger populations, but not all. The 2002 UN-sponsored Arab Development Report pointed out the “At about 15 per cent, average unemployment across Arab countries is among the highest rates in the developing world.” High birth rates in Arab countries mean that the median age in the Middle East is only 22 years, compared to a global average of 28 years. This has resulted in millions of poorly educated youngsters entering the work force each year with few prospect of finding meaningful employment.
The “lost generation” is key to understanding recent developments in the Middle East, and the current refugee crisis. In Europe the autumn of 2015 has been marked by a political crisis spurred by the influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. Concerns that economic migrants could be entering EU posing as refugees have been raised after Syria issued 10,000 passports in just one month through its embassy in Jordan. The European public mood has swung wildly from idealistic fervor to sheer panic as the number of migrants has accelerated. Germany is expected to receive one million applications for asylum this year. If all asylum seekers settled in one place, they would make up the country’s third largest city, larger than Munich.
While activists see this solely as a question of compassion, cooler heads see a contradictory picture. If every asylum seeker who manages to slip through Europe’s porous borders were to be granted the right to stay, millions of immigrants would likely arrive in Europe where anti-immigration sentiments were running high even before the recent influx.Immigration is the most divisive issue in Europe today. Faced with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war or in search of a better life, Europe’s leaders stand paralyzed before a self-contradictory public opinion. If we for a moment put the most hyper-ventilating scenarios aside, we see that the pieces are lined up for a battle over authority, the like of which Europe has not seen since the creation of the EU in 1993.
Most will agree with Danish historian and editor Bo Lidegaard’s dictum: «No society can sustain limitless immigration». But how much is too much? This is the core of the dispute. Since European countries curbed work migration in the 1970s, asylum has become one of the few ways for undereducated non-Europeans to settle in Europe. The demand for asylum is governed by conditions in countries of origin and not, necessarily, by the recipient countries’ needs.In the popular mind the typical asylum seeker is fleeing the civil war in Syria, but according to figures released by Eurostat on September 16, only 20 per cent of recent asylum seekers to the EU are Syrians. Those who advocate for higher fences should remember that millions of people would qualify for asylum in Europe, if only they manage to get past the border controls set up to keep them out.
There are some 60 million refugees in the world and an unknown number of millions of people who in other ways are likely to qualify for asylum given recent rulings of Europe’s supranational courts and the asylum practices of countries such as Germany, Sweden and Norway.According to Oxford University professor Paul Collier, author of the book Exodus, about 40 percent of people in the developing world would emigrate if only developed countries would take them. Adding to the challenge, Europe lacks a functioning system to differentiate between economic migrants and legitimate refugees. Repatriation for those denied asylum often prove difficult, given that many of them come from countries with poor systems of governance.
As a result many who do not qualify for asylum are allowed to stay, increasing the incentive for others to attempt the journey to Europe.Europe accounts for 7 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s wealth creation. Europe accounts for half the world’s welfare spending and receives 80 percent of asylum applications in the world. European states have sought to redress this imbalance by restricting access to the places that people can apply for asylum. This policy has created a perverse situation in which people cast off in unseaworthy vessels in the hope of being rescued by European vessels patrolling the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
An estimated 23,000 people so far have drowned on this perilous voyage.This profoundly immoral system has now collapsed. Unfortunately, the voters, governments, and institutions that together must find a solution share almost no common ground. First, there is a gap between national governments and EU institutions. The latter do not seem to have any discernable ceiling when it comes to immigration and have thus far seemed more concerned with expanding their own powers than stemming the flow of migrants. That said, there is no evidence to support claims sometimes voiced in Eurosceptic quarters that uncontrolled migration is part of a sinister ploy to prepare the ground for a post-national Europe.The EU response to the refugee crisis has been trailing events.
The EU is paralyzed by a “consensus-expectations gap”; that is, between what the Union had been talked up to do and what it is actually able to deliver in terms of agreed policies. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has invested much prestige in a proposal to grant Brussels the authority to distribute asylum seekers among the Union’s member states based on a common formula. Granting the Commission the right to determine who settles in the country would mean handing the EU a large chunk of the member state’s remaining sovereignty.The proposal was floated and sunk back in June, only to resurface in early September and sink again before, in late September, the EU used the “nuclear option” of qualified majority voting (QMV) to distribute 120 000 migrants.
This was forced through against the bitter opposition of several states. The voting mechanism, common for less-controversial measures, had never before been used for something as contentious as immigration. This was a decisive move, but short sighted. 120 000 is but a small share of the asylum seekers in the EU and QMV cannot be made the modus operandi without sparking an open sovereignty contest between the institutions and the member states.EU institutions are now locked in a defensive struggle to keep the EU’s treaty base from unraveling. The Schengen Agreement, which grants passport-free travel between 22 of the EU 28 countries plus Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, is under intense pressure.
Schengen was built on the promise that internal borders would be disbanded while external borders would be guarded. This promise was not kept. Frontex, the EU body for monitoring Schengen’s outer borders, had a mini-budget of just 55.3 million euros for 2014, which indicates that border security was not a priority. The absence of passport controls means that a migrant who has managed to gain a foothold (in a literal sense) in a Schengen country has open access to all the countries—not in theory, of course, but in practice.In early September, tens of thousands of asylum seekers every week began arriving Germany, their preferred destination. Chancellor Merkel, who had been praised in glowing terms by The Economist for her open arms approach to asylum, panicked and temporarily shut down train links with Austria. Germany had reached its immigration limit.
On September 14 Austria, fearing to become the end destination of asylum seekers on their way to Germany, made use of the emergency exit clause of the Schengen Agreement and re-imposed border controls. Six EU countries promptly followed suit.The reason that the Schengen regime is under pressure has to do with the relationship among the nation-states that make up the EU. The so-called Dublin II agreement was meant to guarantee that asylum seekers would be registered and fingerprinted in their first country of arrival in the EU, and that asylum seekers could be returned to the country where they were first registered. Due to anti-immigrant sentiments in many European states, this has been the norm.
The burdens of asylum migration were therefore distributed unevenly, to southern Europe’s disadvantage.The southern countries generally have strict asylum policies. As one moves toward the northwest, the asylum climate gradually gets milder. There are indeed “international obligations” when it comes to asylum, but the states themselves interpret what these obligations entail. Therefore Sweden with a population of 9 million granted asylum to 33,025 applicants in 2014, while the corresponding figure for Poland, with its population of 38 million, was 740. Since different countries have different asylum practices, the same asylum application might be accepted one country but rejected in another. All states prioritize asylum seekers who are physically on their territory.
Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, and Croatia thus have strong incentives to allow migrants free passage without fingerprinting them. The Dublin Agreements have been abrogated for years, but over the summer of 2015 transit countries stopped even pretending to enforce it. This explains why Europe north of the Alps is now experiencing an influx similar to that of the south. The dream of a borderless Europe is now marred by beggar-thy-neighbor policies in which countries funnel asylum seekers on to the next frontier. This eats away at the mutual trust that is the source of the EU’s strength. Mutual suspicions flourish, making consensus even more difficult to attain than during the euro crisis.
September 14 was also the day of the long-delayed meeting where the EU’s Justice and Interior Ministers, were to agree on a common response to the crisis. On the table were proposals for common asylum practices among member states. That was never likely to happen. A common asylum system is almost unthinkable in light of the open arms of Sweden and Germany and the restrictive asylum practices of 17 of the 28 member states. Another proposal was to open EU reception centers outside Europe where asylum applications could be processed, thus stopping the deadly boat migration. This was also shelved, as it would likely have resulted in large numbers of valid asylum claims without any corresponding willingness among member states to welcome the applicants. Predictably, the meeting was a failure.
2015 will likely see a doubling of the record 626,000 asylum applications from the year before. In the absence of collective leadership, such figures are set to become the new norm. That brings us to the relationship between the governing and the governed.Within the nation-state, four considerations collide. The first is, paradoxically, democracy. This is rooted in the idea that the popular will, as expressed in elections, matters. Public opinion in the European countries reached its pain threshold on immigration some time ago. Pew Research Center’s European measurement from 2014 showed that on average only 7 percent of respondents in Europe’s six largest countries were favorable to increased migration. This is at odds with the rule of law. States must also live up to their international obligations.
These obligations include the EU’s freedom of movement, the UN Refugee Convention, and the EU’s common asylum rules.National identity is a third factor. Due to their large numbers, the recent wave of immigrants will be difficult and costly to integrate. Today’s immigration practice exceeds most states’ ability to integrate, which creates friction between old and new citizens. A final factor is that liberal states are market economies that depend on the free flow of goods, services, and labor. The freer the better, history seems to teach us. The problem is that there is little demand for low-skilled labor in Europe today.
It is also questionable whether Europe needs more people to cope with the economic conditions created by an ageing population.We see that the four principles are pulling the nation state in different directions. While representative democracy and the nation suggest restrictive immigration policies, the rule of law points in the opposite direction, and economic considerations could go both ways. This explains some of the paradoxes in the immigration debate. In times of prosperity, when the economy delivers growth and supranational governance is uncontroversial, the trend will be in the direction of more open borders. In times of adversity, the principles of national identity and democracy tend to come to the fore. During the economic slowdown of the 1970s, most European states stopped work migration from developing countries.
Today, however, empathic and legalistic arguments have trumped all other considerations.Opposition to immigration was until relatively recently considered heresy among Europe’s grey elites. That has changed, but primarily on a rhetorical level. Politicians promise to “take immigration seriously” but, confusingly to most people, this has not yet resulted in fewer immigrants. British Prime Minister David Cameron may serve as an example: In 2010, he promised to reduce net immigration “from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.” The figures for 2014 were the highest on record: 330,000.This is partly because voters want something as impossible as fried snow: They want a restrictive immigration policy, but they also want to help the desperate people on their television screens. Asylum immigration to welfare states is a costly affair.
In Norway every non-Western immigrant carries a future net cost commitment of 4.1 million Norwegian kroner, equivalent to half a million US dollars, according to Statistics Norway in 2012. Paying for these increased costs will likely require higher taxes or cuts in social benefits. That is already happening. In 2013 the Netherlands, a pioneer when it comes to large-scale third world immigration, announced the end of its welfare state.Mass immigration is also a democratic challenge since reduced immigration is an issue that the voters, according to Eurobarometer’s spring survey for 2015, claim to give remarkably high priority. One must perhaps forgive voters for concluding that their governments cannot or will represent them on this point. The result is a widespread feeling of powerlessness.
Many ask who will defend them against the negative effects of globalization. This, in turn, helps explain the rise of radical parties and political agitation outside electoral channels all over Europe.Europe is experiencing a steadily growing influx of asylum seekers that is partly caused by political developments outside of Europe, but also partly brought on by liberal asylum policies in Europe. Rich Arab Gulf states are not experiencing a refugee crisis because they do not offer asylum in the way that Europe does. It is neither admirable nor commendable, but it is a fact. According to World Bank figures, Saudi Arabia accepted 559 asylum seekers in the period 2010–14. Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman are equally restrictive.It is therefore misleading to talk about the resettling of the boat refugees as a ‘joint effort by the international community’, as is the common refrain among those favoring liberal asylum policies.
Besides, the phrase leaves one with the impression that there are a finite number of asylum seekers to be distributed, while all indications are that the more one grants asylum, the more one encourages others to apply. The easiest way to reduce asylum immigration is to narrow the criteria for asylum, but rulings by the European courts appear to have broken the key in the lock on this score.The struggle over authority over migration is poisoning European politics. In the gap between self-interested European institutions, governments that are unwilling or unable, and panicky voters the record numbers of migrants will likely continue until something breaks. No one can know what will be gained, and what will be lost in the struggle that lies ahead. It is possible that crisis will be a springboard to a federal Europe, but this would likely entail a more authoritarian Union.
More likely Europe’s nation states will wallow in impotent acrimony as border fences spring up. Or perhaps voters will force a new political paradigm to replace the one that has created a crisis it is incapable of solving.There is no natural law that guarantees any political party privileged access to power. The new right parties could yet grow much larger, as could the old left. The Swedish nationalist party, Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) may prove a harbinger in this regard. Despite being considered untouchables by the political establishment, the party is forging ahead in the polls. Currently at 27.3 percent, it is the country’s largest party.
The party’s rise is stoked by the country’s migration policies, the most liberal in Europe. In other states the parties of the New Right could grow to a size where they no longer can be ignored, as the old left has done in Greece. The New Right may take over the presidency in France; its parties may become the largest ones in Denmark and the Netherlands.This would pose a severe threat to West European politics, a system in which a center left and a center right party alternate in forming government with ritual regularity. Few governments in Europe will be able to feel electorally secure when the initial euphoria abates and the full consequences of their leaders’ response to the refugee crisis become apparent to the voters. In short, the current crisis will not be the end of Europe, nor will it likely be the end of the EU, but it may spell the end of the postwar political order in Europe.
Published in The American Interest on: October 10, 2015