Europe’s Migration Crisis: An Alternative View from Central Europe

European Union needs a debate on migration

Benjamin Tallis, Michal Šimečka and Jan Daniel
13 May 2015

European governments are struggling to find an adequate response to tragedies in the Mediterranean and the rise in irregular immigration from and through the conflict-torn Southern Neighbourhood. As members of the Schengen zone, the Czech Republic and other post-communist EU members can no longer pretend it is someone else’s problem. A serious debate on migration is long overdue both at the European level as well as within the EU’s member states.

In this context, last week’s commentary by Radko Hokovský and Jakub Janda is significant, not least because it reflects the prevailing consensus among Czech political elites. While welcomed for its potential to kick-start the necessary debate, the position they outline contradicts the European values they purport to defend.

The authors loosely align themselves with the meagre package of measures adopted by the Council (inter alia additional money for Triton operation, police/military action against smuggling networks, addressing root-causes etc.). However, they warn against any moves toward a more cohesive and communitarian migration/asylum policy, as this could trigger an even greater influx of refugees/migrants and facilitate an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populist backlash that could threaten the EU’s very existence.

Acknowledging that it may sound “cynical and too pragmatic”, they argue against EU-wide burden-sharing of asylum claimants, resettlement of migrants, externalized offshore asylums, processing of asylum application etc., insisting that decision-making on granting a residence permit must remain in the hands of national governments. Hokovský and Janda write that, in the absence of popularly endorsed political Union, transferring more competences to European Commission would be grist to the mill of anti-immigration populist forces. “Creation of a common asylum and migration policy would be the last of EU’s decision before its disintegration.”

Unfortunately, this is a position espoused by the current Czech government and PM Sobotka. It is wrong in its substance, unconvincing in its political analysis, and more disturbing morally than its authors dare to admit.

 

Substantial Errors: Simplification, Conflation & Obfuscation

First, in substantive terms, the position advanced by Hokovský and Janda makes a series of untenable simplifications and straw man arguments: it reduces the present challenge to a choice between Brussels’ power-grab and maintaining national sovereignty; it ignores the distinction between regular and irregular migration, as well as between refugees and economic migrants, and crucially, it buys into the fiction that migration is solely negative – a threat to be guarded against rather than an opportunity to be embraced.

The migration situation that the EU and its member states are facing is more complex than this and, in fact, borders, asylum and migration are already semi-Europeanized policies – a patchy framework that, as the latest spate of tragedies show, simply doesn’t work: for migrants, border guards and Europeans alike. This means that while Schengen states share the benefits of common borders they do not share the burdens equally, leaving states such as Italy and Greece unable to cope with the issue. This puts migrants in unnecessary danger and threatens the continued existence of the Schengen zone, which relies on the integrity of its frontiers to facilitate regular, rather than irregular mobility.

However, an effective response would not require a full Europeanisation of migration policy. Coalitions of willing states could establish offshore migration processing facilities and launch a naval operation to conduct SAR and prevent migrant boats from reaching the high seas. These steps would reduce migrant deaths while meeting legal commitments to asylum seekers. At the same time the Frontex Triton mission could provide border protection and guard against irregular migration. While Hokovský and Janda admit that member states could do this, they argue that they should not, as it would provoke a Eurosceptic backlash that could threaten the EU itself.

Again, this worst-case scenario ignores the complexity of border and migration policy. Member states would retain the capacity of making decisions over asylum-seekers who arrive directly on their territory (as opposed to being re-settled) and remain in charge of the entry and stay of economic migrants to whom, unlike to refugees, they have no obligation. It is unfortunately indicative of the prevailing climate in which the focus is on threats and burdens, rather than opportunities and contributions of migration – a distortion that the non-differentiation of refugees with economic migrants results in.

Shutting the door on such migrants is not only morally questionable but also risks missing out on an economic windfall. Research has repeatedly shown that migrants bring gains rather than costs, many are ‘exceptional people’ willing to risk everything for a better life and the majority is young, driven and willing to work. Managing such migration through regular channels, alongside political engagement with, rather than pandering to, discontented groups, also holds out the possibility of the exact people-to-people contacts that mitigate the xenophobia that Hokovský and Janda lament – as it has within the EU.

 

Political Consequences: Falling Out or Falling Together?

Secondly, Hokovský and Janda’s article presents a flawed analysis of the potential political fallout of a more progressive response. The threat of populism is wildly inflated and there are far more states that would be willing to partake in the type of common action to solve this issue (as outlined above) than the authors allow us to think.

Those states that carry the greatest burden (in dealing with high and ongoing migratory pressure driven by wars and other catastrophes and the desires of those who seek a better life) have expressed will for such common action. Neither Italy that’s on the front line, nor Germany or Sweden who take the highest number of asylum seekers, have seen a surge of anti-European forces. Indeed, for those at the sharp end of migration capsizes has been a welcome silver lining in this humanitarian crisis. In Germany, Pegida is in disarray and effective burden sharing would help blunt the attacks of parties such as Alternative fur Deutschland. Both Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer (neither of which is known for being a soft-touch, liberal idealist) support common action. Hakovsky and Janda claim that Europeanising asylum policy would be a ‘rash’ move that would threaten the EU. Merkel in particular is avoiding such hasty or politically unadvised moves.

In countries with the highest migrant intake (Italy, Greece and Malta, but also France, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden), increased EU solidarity and burden-sharing would actually lend ammunition to pro-EU, centrist governments against anti-immigration Europhobic parties (insofar as “Europe” would be seen as alleviating voters’ concerns over immigration). This leaves the Visegrad countries – who rightly revel in the benefits of Schengen for practical purposes as well as for reasons of belonging[1] – along with Denmark and Finland as potential objectors. In the case of the Visegrad group, such hostility is particularly problematic.

 

European Values: Moral and Legal Responsibilities

In Czech Republic, the argument against common action on the migration crisis seems to be caused by signs showing that it could actually work, leading to increased immigration and creating a new ‘pull factor’. It should be noted that similarly faulty logic was behind the decision of cancelling and failing to replace the Mare Nostrum SAR operation. Disguised as a defence of Europe, this position effectively argues that letting people drown is warranted because it provides a powerful deterrent, even though it seems questionable given the push factors driving the migration surge.

Underneath this premise which has thus far been illusory, there is a worrying assumption about the innate xenophobia of the general public. Tellingly, in many cases it is those communities least exposed to migrant populations who tend to be more hostile towards them. If such xenophobia exists, then, in accordance with European values and the history of the EU, it should be challenged rather than simply accepted or, worse, instrumentalized for ignoble purposes. The Visegrad countries, which have been on the receiving end of such prejudice themselves and which have challenged it through mobility that EU membership allowed, know this all too well.

Hokovský and Janda’s analysis fails to account for EU member states’ legal commitments to allow potential refugees to claim asylum. Even more depressingly, it exposes desires for a free-ride in Schengen and pandering to the nastiest sides of domestic populism. This is a morally indefensible and hypocritical position that contradicts the Union’s fundamental values and legal commitments. Should more EU Member States pursue this cynical strategy, it will indeed be the end of the EU as we know it.

[1] Like much of the analysis in this piece, this claim is based on the findings of the ESRC-funded research project conducted by Benjamin Tallis from 2011-2015 – publication of findings is forthcoming.

 

Article was originally published by Respekt (http://respekt.ihned.cz/)

 

Benjamin Tallis is the Co-ordinator or the Centre for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, he is Editor-in-Chief of New Perspectives: Interdisciplinary Journal of CEE Politics and IR. Tallis previously worked on security and border security missions for the European Union in the Balkans, Ukraine and Moldova. He blogs about CEE politics, societies and cultures at ‘Torn Curtain’. Tweet: @bctallis

Michal Simecka is a Research Fellow at the Center for European Security of the the Institute of International Relations in Prague. Hepreviously worked as a foreign policy advisor to Members of the European Parliament in Brussels, and holds a D.Phil. (PhD) in Politics from Nuffield College, University of Oxford. His research interests include the politics of the post-Soviet region, European neighbourhood policies and external action, EU institutional affairs, and foreign policies of Central and East European countries. Tweet: @MSimecka

Jan Daniel is a Research Fellow at the Center for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague and a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Studies at Charles University in Prague. His research interests include contemporary critical and sociological security theory, practices of security governance, and Middle East politics. Tweet: @al_horalistani

 

Photo by UNHCF | Flickr

Europe’s Migration Crisis: An Alternative view from Central Europe