It is encouraging that what was generally portrayed by the British press as a crisis of “migrants flooding across borders” is now increasingly seen as a refugee crisis, evoking a strong tide of humanitarian sentiment, particularly in Germany but also in the UK, where the Cameron government has been forced to backtrack somewhat from its initial hard line, although still not as much as many of us would like.
There is also growing recognition that European states are now reaping what they have sown through participation in interventions in North Africa and the Middle East that have had catastrophic, although for some of us also predictable, social, economic and political consequences. Looking beyond the immediate crisis of thousands of people walking their way from Hungary to Austria, we can see that the policies that “Fortress Europe” adopted to control migration have also failed. Palliative development aid intended to keep people in place, and extension of border control efforts beyond the political frontiers of European states, cannot erase the effects of the global unequal development produced by the imposition of neoliberal economics: even when economic growth is produced, its benefits fail to “trickle down”, a considerable amount of “development” is based on “accumulation by dispossession”, and international disparities of life chances are too great, in terms of physical security and absence of discrimination as well as material living standards, to make movement across frontiers a completely unattractive option, however much cost and suffering it entails.
The present movement of people is adding to the crisis afflicting the European Union itself, revealing underlying fractures that the Union’s supra-national political arrangements are ill-equipped to mediate. There is serious uneven development within the Eurozone, in which the countries located on the borders which migrants and refugees cross in the first instance tend to have high rates of unemployment. What was done to Greece hardly encourages hope that this situation will be ameliorated any time soon. The Schengen system of passport- free movement has been broken by the refugee crisis. Schengen was never properly integrated into refugee and asylum policy, and the existing legal arrangements, by which refugees should be sent back to the country of initial arrival, are now de facto suspended. Yet the idea of all EU countries agreeing to accept quotas of refugees is not prospering politically. For Hungary’s government this is not simply an issue of pressure on public services (the British excuse), but a question of defending “Christian civilisation” against “Islamic invasion”. This too is understandable in historical terms, although understanding and justification of such historical sensibilities are different things, and such a posture today seems inconsistent with the ideal of what the “New Europe” was to supposed to be. Yet the problem is that Europe’s governance institutions in their present form are simply not adequate to cope with these growing contradictions, which might well be exacerbated further by the British, even if voters opt to stay in Europe in next year’s referendum.
The current crisis has predictably provoked debate, even in the quality press, over the longstanding distinction between “genuine refugees” and “economic migrants”. Efforts to distinguish between the “deserving” and “undeserving” have included the observation that people from the Balkans are buying false papers so that they can present themselves as Syrian refugees, in the hope of being allowed to settle in Germany. But wherever immigration controls exist, industries of illegality will emerge to take advantage of the profits to be made in this kind of business, and users of these services should not be consigned to the “undeserving” category without further reflection. Given that European “humanitarian intervention” left people in places such as Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina without jobs, and also resulted in a considerable amount of empowering of politically-connected criminal networks, this is yet another problem that “Europe” might be considered morally obliged to fix.
The real question should be how. The other encouraging sign in the evolution of the public debate is that it seems to be edging beyond humanitarian sentiment towards a more practical focus. There is a lot to be done. We already know that the UK approach to assessing claims to asylum rests on extremely strong criteria for risk of persecution and actual recent maltreatment in the place of origin. So many cases that even relatively conservative people would regard as “deserving” actually get rejected in Britain. Refugee policy and practice urgently needs to be reformed in the whole of the EU. In this context Germany now looks more like the good cop than the bad, but Germany still has a successful economy. On the other hand, Germany has much in common with other European countries in demographic terms: the “native” population has a low birthrate and, like Europe as a whole, the country an inverted demographic pyramid in which there is a growing proportion of elderly people living longer but no longer working and needing healthcare. So despite popular enthusiasm for immigration control, Europe actually needs more immigrant workers.
The challenge is to turn a necessity into a virtue. This requires a policy rethink that should include allowing people who seek asylum to work while their cases are appraised and a lot more political support for all the research that has show that immigrants in general make a positive contribution to the economy, a contribution which is seldom at the expense of “native” workers unless governments turn a blind eye to super-exploitation and semi-slavery. A radical shift in immigration policy might be bad news for the companies that prosper in the border security and detention facility industries, but it would open the door to a planned approach that could rest on a more rational basis than a policy orientated simply towards making politics out of diminishing net immigration numbers without regard to what the numbers really mean.
Even modest advances in this area would be good news for Europeans in the longer term. It is, however, impossible to separate the question of immigration from other aspects of domestic and international economic policy. Whether or not public services can cope with increased immigration obviously depends on how much governments are willing to spend on public services, and how many immigrants the labour market can absorb depends on broader economic strategy. Austerity models that promote economic stagnation and insist on downsizing the state and privatising public services are not proving helpful in this regard. Reducing uneven development within the Eurozone, and even preserving the Eurozone and the European Union itself, is a question not simply of policy change but of institutional and political change. Maybe Europe will muddle through the crises currently afflicting the region for a while longer, but the fractures and contradictions are becoming increasingly apparent.
Europe needs new economic models (for itself and recipients of its development aid). Without that, it will be difficult to reach any kind of social and political consensus about desirable levels of immigration, and equally difficult to damp down the drivers of international movement. But Europe (and the United States) also need to desist from actions that destabilise entire regions and start thinking about ways of promoting solutions to the refugee crises that their own past actions have fostered. That may be the toughest challenge of all given the extent of the damage already done and the geopolitical dilemmas that this now poses for the North Atlantic powers.