European Union

While Europe squabbles, others drown

While Europe squabbles, others drown

Though Europe’s current and ongoing migrant crises are occurring on its geographical margins and borders – the Italian and Greek coasts, the Polish border with Ukraine and that between Hungary and Serbia – its real core is to be found close to Place Schuman in Brussels. As with many instances in history of regional powers defending territory from invading hordes, decisions are made very far from the front.

On a recent trip to Brussels I was walking around the EU institution quarter. There for a wedding, it was also Europe Day. The institution buildings had open days, children were walking around with the EU flag painted on their faces and you could test your knowledge on the workings of the Troika. And yet, stepping a few blocks away from Schuman, you enter one of Brussels’ many migrant neighbourhoods: Congolese bars, Ethiopian restaurants, Moroccan run grocery shops. If you stopped to talk, it probably wouldn’t be long before you heard stories of how people came to be there.

As well as going to the heart of Europe in terms where decisions are made, the seemingly unceasing flow of migrants willing to risk their lives in boats run by people-traffickers and smugglers in Libya also goes to the heart of what Europe is, what it stands for and the core principles it tries to represent, uphold and promote.

It is certainly a complex situation, but it is not the level of migration per se that is the cause of the EU’s existential crisis. “Perhaps this is not such an emergency as the moral panic surrounding it implies”, says Nando Sigona, migration expert and Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Indeed, the numbers of those entering Italy and Greece (102,000) are comparatively low in relation to the 1.2million migrants who sought asylum in Germany and the Nordic countries during the crisis in Bosnia twenty years ago.

Instead, the EU’s stance on migration and its flawed policies block any moves forward towards a solution. Furthermore, the lack of consensus on how to manage the issue severely challenges the EU’s underlying philosophies and it also comes at a time when the idea of a more united Europe is facing unprecedented challenges in other spheres of its activity.

“What we see now is partly due to the overall crisis of the EU project”, says argues Sigona. In large parts of the media at least, both the migration flows into Italy and the increasing risk of Greece leaving the Eurozone are both seen as threats to the ideal of a united Europe. Both are being used by many on the left and right to argue for the EU failing to live up to its founding principles.

Indeed, this is partly the reason why the current migrant issue is being narrated as a crisis: “migration is sometimes the issue but at other times the tool that member deploy to demonstrate their unhappiness with the EU overall” Sigona notes.

“Political and economic elites in member states have decided to shift their focus back on the nation and this inevitably shows the tensions within the system”

The current situation adds to the trend of individual member states becoming more focussed on what goes on within their own borders. Sigona notes that during the EU’s period of rapid expansion, both politically and economically, the EU was gaining strength over the nation state as a method of ‘doing politics’ in Europe. Since then, though, we’ve witnessed the opposite trend, partially linked to austerity measures introduced or enforced throughout the continent since the 2008 financial crisis. “Political and economic elites in member states have decided to shift their focus back on the nation and this inevitably shows the tensions within the system”. National governments are fighting back.

This national fight back could be seen in the wrangling in Brussels over the proposal to enforce a quota system for dealing with the new migrants in Italy and Greece. At the recent summit in June, the Commission’s pleas for mandatory quotas were rejected in favour of voluntary opt-in agreement to resettle 40,000 migrants (24,000 from Italy and 16,000 from Greece). According to the Guardian, by taking such a decision, member states were “effectively telling Brussels to mind its own business on the politically toxic issue of immigration”.

There appears very little political will from many member states, not least Latvia which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council. Indeed, according to Anna Triandafyllidou, Professor at the European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, “it is clear that Central Eastern European countries will be the big ‘losers’ of such an arrangement as they in general have avoided bearing any responsibility or burden in the area of asylum”. With the case of Poland, the situation is slightly different as it has been faced with an increase in migration from Ukraine since 2014. Marta Jaroszewicz, a migration expert at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, estimates that there are now 300,000-400,000 Ukrainians in Poland. These are not asylum seekers but mainly economic migrants given temporary work visas and so are therefore contributing to the economy. Nonetheless, this has not stopped the Polish government from arguing that Poland should be exempt from any new EU quota system for resettling those refugees and Italy and Greece because it has already got its hand full.

Anna Triandafyllidou: “It is clear that Central Eastern European countries will be the big ‘losers’ of such an arrangement as they in general have avoided bearing any responsibility or burden in the area of asylum”

Sigona predicts that the opt-in option for resettling migrants indicates the emergence of a two-speed Europe that will have to be flexible if it is to operate at all. Rather than waiting for change through treaties, EU members are experimenting in the way they respond to issues as and when they emerge. In the future, cooperation and decision making may be more issue-based “rather than in more general terms of deeper social and economic integration” which, for the moment at least, appears to be on the back burner.

Although there is little harmony on how to deal with those who have already arrived in Europe, the one area in which there does seem to be the possibility of agreement on the migration crisis is that of more robustly defending EU’s maritime borders in order to limit the numbers of new migrants. This includes giving the go-ahead for increasing the resources of Frontex and attempting to deal with the smugglers at the point of source. Says Triandafyllidou, “there seems to be more agreement and support, by contrast, to the idea that the EU should proceed more aggressively in countering the migrant smuggling business by actually seeking smugglers’ boats, or boats that can potentially be used by smugglers, and destroying them before they can be used for the transportation of people across the Mediterranean”. However, such a robust and militaristic strategy has raised vocal concerns from experts and civil society over the risk of ‘collateral damage’ among civilians in the coastal areas concerned while not solving the problem in any meaningful way. “While smugglers are a crucial element in the mix, the motivations of migrants and asylum seekers and the root causes of these flows are much stronger and will still last for several years”.

Sigona agrees and says that although at base this is an issue of human movement, there does need to be stabilisation in the area. Since the Arab Spring, Morocco has been the most stable country in the region and the smuggling route from there to Spain is now all but closed. He points to the fact that, far from being a transit country for desperate migrants, Libya was historically a destination for economic migrants from across Africa who came to find work. After the fall of Ghaddafi’s regime though, the country has fallen into a prolonged civil war and is a long way from being conflict free. The government has also ceased to control much of the coast. The combination of an economy in ruins, the rise of ISIL and a weak central government creates the ‘push factors’ that encourage migrants to resort to smugglers in order to find safety.

It is surely time then that the EU reconsiders its neighbourhood policy towards North Africa, which attempts to spread the ‘European’ values of “deep and sustainable democracy, accompanied by inclusive economic development”. Sigona is clear to point out though, that in the past EU member states were more than willing to turn a blind eye to the promotion of these values when it came to making deals with dubious regimes in order to reduce migration. Yet another case of the EU’s ideals clashing with its policies.

Whether through quota systems or voluntary opt-in measures, dealing with migrants only once they arrive in Europe is not a sustainable option and more funds should be directed to stabilising the region. The continued reticence of internationally sanctioned military action in the area, whether under NATO or UN auspices, further ensures that the status quo of precarious inward migration routes remains. The fluid situations in the Middle East and North Africa are not likely to be solved overnight and until they, are the Southern EU member-states will remain exposed to at least some of the effects of the turmoil. According to Triandafyllidou, a more sustainable solution needs to be sought “that includes a global and not just European plan for relocating asylum seekers” combined with a more proactive legal migration policy in the EU “in order to open up possibilities for people to migrate through legal channels and thus discourage irregular entry and the use of the services of smugglers”.

This is only dealing with one part of problem though (migration flows) and does not address the problems that the EU is facing at an institutional level in Brussels when it comes to finding a policy consensus. As it stands, the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has threatened to make the situation increasingly uncomfortable for Europe if the inaction continues. Though he did not divulge the details, this could mean giving temporary papers to those migrants already in Italy so that they will then have the right to travel freely to other EU counties, something the Italian government has done historically. They will not stay in Italy but will move to Germany, France, the UK and Belgium, where the ties, families and networks are. We can see this in Calais the attempts of asylum seekers there to get to the UK by any means necessary: walking through a train tunnel, hiding in lorries or even attempting to swim across the channel.

I believe this lack of action has a much more elemental, individual and psychological dimension to it as well though. It is also a question of proximity to an event (or threat). Too often the sobering reality of disasters is only brought home when ‘one of ours’ is affected or it happens on our doorstep. Terrorism only becomes a problem that needs to be dealt with when it kills in central London or Madrid. Natural disasters in Asia garner more attention when Europeans are caught up in it, preparing to scale Everest earlier this year or sunning themselves by a pool before the tsunami in 2004. It is harder to empathise and understand the scale of something unless we see it with our own eyes.

The EU will continue to fight on two fronts: dealing with increased migrant inflows and trying to align this with its core ideals. And the boats will keep on arriving.

Renzi himself has stated that the boat that sank in April with the loss of 800 people will be raised so “the whole world (can) see what happened”. This needs to be handled with care, not least by the media who are often guilty of employing negative tropes when reporting on migration. Though vital, such a move must not be a voyeuristic glance at the macabre. We should also not allow voiceless bodies to speak for us. The least they deserve is the respect to not be used as propaganda material by either ‘side’ of the debate. That said the sight of a sunken, rusted, trawler being raised would be a startling visual representation of the human effects of Europe’s lack of coordinated action on this. This might have a similar impact to Amnesty International’s protest in April this year, when it placed 200 people lay in body bags on Brighton beach on the UK’s south coast to highlight the EU’s migrant crisis and in part to shame the UK’s lack of response.

But what if 300 people died in boats off the Belgian coast tomorrow – let’s say outside Zeebrugge, not far from where I spent family holidays with my Grandfather, who worked in Brussels in the 80s? Maybe then there would be a policy shift overnight and much swifter action emanating from Place Schuman. As it is, the EU will continue to fight on two fronts: dealing with increased migrant inflows and trying to align this with its core ideals. And the boats will keep on arriving.

Photo by Irish Defence Forces, cc,


Sam Bennett
Sam Bennett has been involved in migrant integration research and practice for over 10years. He currently teaches at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan and is also the co-ordinator of a new migrant mentoring project in the city. He has a background in academia as well as grassroots NGOs and local government in the UK, Spain and Israel.