1989 Generation Initiative

This article is part of a series of papers based on the preliminary results of the 1989 Generation Initiative’s policy cycle “Tackling Populism: Hope over Fear”. The following article is based on the results of the Roundtable “Asylum and the EU” at its launching conference. Written by Martin Garrigue, External Content Officer.

Tear down those walls! Fortress Europe cannot be the only vision for the EU’s refugee policy

Europe is still reeling under the weight of what Juncker called “poly-crisis” : the failure of austerity in Greece, Brexit and the refugee crisis are but the most visible markers of a perfect storm in which the future of the EU is being engulfed. Of those, perhaps the refugee crisis has led to the most painfully visible results: to quell refugee flows, Europe has embarked into a “Dawn of Walls” at the Austrian, Hungarian or Macedonian borders, threatening Schengen. The massive arrival of refugees in a short span of time has enabled populists to play with peoples’ fear of ‘cultural invasion’, fear of what refugees might do to their economic situation (not helped, in that respect, by the fact that economic migrants have come in next to refugees) or fears of terrorism. Against all this, the EU has been powerless, symbolized by “deal with the devil” it passed with Turkey to have the latter control migration flows for it.
There is, hence, two crises within the refugee crisis: one is a global displacement crisis, with violence in the MENA region vastly propping up refugee flows, and the other is a EU migration management crisis. To the latter, the fall-back to Fortress(es) Europe cannot be an answer. Beyond the tension this represents with the EU’s avowed normative goals in the international border, the threat this represents to Schengen and, from there, freedom of movement in the EU and the Single Market, cannot be ignored. While taking into account the pressures Member States and their constituents face, hence, the EU must design a refugee policy which safeguards its commitment to international law on asylum as much as its own values.

Setting a vision for refugee policy…

Populists have pushed back against progressive asylum policy, citing economic anxiety, cultural concerns, and security threats as leitmotivs. In such a view, humanitarian commitments are careless, and burden-sharing amongst Member States, unacceptable for the well-being of national constituents. To answer these fears, the EU has lacked a clear vision and has, as such, not managed to create an alternative narrative to national retrenchment.
Whilst populists’ fears are to be understood in driving a vision towards new policies, they should not be allowed to shape completely policy-making, lest the breaking up of Schengen becomes the natural answer. Hence, while the EU should frame itself as taking leadership at a time when the US won’t, making it the champion of human rights and international law, its discourse must also be modulated to reach out to populist electorates. Framing the narrative partly in conservative values might go a long way in that respect: speaking about refugees in terms of families, highlighting religious teachings of kindness and historical tradition in helping refugees will be more palatable to sell to constituencies attracted by populist messages. In such a way, liberal and traditionalist discourse might be reconciled in both favouring the acceptance of refugees.

The EU should frame itself as taking leadership at a time when the US won’t, making it the champion of human rights and international law

To that end, the current narrative of migration as an economic opportunity must also be toned down: the populist electorate is foremost afraid of the effects of migration on their economic situation. In any case, the argument itself is flawed: while migration might indeed bring benefits on an aggregate level, it has sectoral negative impacts on the less well economically endowed segments of the population which, in turn, are those who vote for populism. The differentiation between refugees and economic migrants, hence, will be important, a distinction which must also be reflected in policy.

…and implementing it

The Dublin application process has broken down: frontline states have received a disproportionate amount of asylum applications, leading to high costs for them and a dire humanitarian situation in hotspots for asylum-seekers in Greece and Italy. Attempts to impose compulsory burden-sharing have balked: reluctance to accept refugees in several Member States has culminated with a (failed) referendum against refugee quotas in Hungary; meanwhile, most countries are far from fulfilling their refugee quotas. The choice to externalize the asylum crisis by bringing Turkey and Libya to control refugee flows smacks hence of defeat, as the EU allows itself to be blackmailed by Ankara over refugees whose situation locally is equally dire.Asylum and the EU roundtable


Unsustainable, the Dublin Regulation should hence be scrapped, in favour of a centralized EU body in charge of reviewing asylum applications. Such a body should keep operate hotspots in frontline states as the latter remain the first point of entry and, hence, the easiest point of control for refugee flows, though additional hotspots could be opened to ease the burden on local populations. In charge of manning the hotspots themselves as well, the fixed budget of this centralized body, paid for by all Member States, should be consequent enough that it manages to provide a decent situation to pending asylum applicants, even if it means that said budget is reallocated elsewhere in leaner times.
The compulsory nature of the Relocation and Resettlement programme (R&R), from there, has proven counter-productive: a new system must be drafted operating mostly on a voluntary basis. Upon acceptance of an asylum application, refugees must enter a matching-scheme formalizing a two-way street between asylum-seekers and host communities, in which local/regional authorities will have the final decision in accepting refugees. Such acceptance must be incentivized financially by unblocking the appropriate level of funds to make refugee acceptance attractive. Those funds could come from multiple sources: financial contributions from states who prefer not accepting refugees (or, alternatively, contributions in skilled personnel), earmarking of part of the European Social Fund, public/private partnership with private sponsorship of refugees like in Canada, are all solutions to consider. An appropriate integration “package”, with language classes but also civics classes to lessen fears about cultural barriers, should then be provided to allow refugees to be on an equal footing with European populations on the job market.

Unsustainable, the Dublin Regulation should hence be scrapped, in favour of a centralized EU body in charge of reviewing asylum applications.

The question remains of what to do with those who have their asylum application rejected. Those without a solid security concern will have to be deported back to their original country, if only to be able to better accommodate pending asylum applicants. The question of those who might only wish temporary protection (a problem which might also apply to accepted asylum applicants with a view of going back to their country eventually), however, will also need answers. The 2001 Directive on Temporary Protection, never triggered until now, might have those: harmonizing rights for beneficiaries of temporary protection including a temporary residence permit, it likewise functions on a voluntary basis between states and beneficiaries. Making the Directive’s remit permanent instead of temporary might provide the scheme needed for the management of those issues.
There is this oft-quoted phrase from former French Socialist Minister Michel Rocard: “France cannot take in all the misery of the world”. Anti-immigration politicians, more than happy to quote it since, have conveniently forgotten its second part: France, also, “must remain what she is, a land of exile”. The large refugee flows have had an undeniable impact on European polities, and populist fears they have given rise to must be accounted for. Border shutting, however, cannot be the only answer: though Europe cannot take in all the world’s misery, it must take its fair share, welcoming refugees accordingly.

Photo by Mihai Simionica.

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