Paul Taylor is an editor at POLITICO.
PARIS — Migration is back on the European Union’s agenda, but unfortunately little has changed since the last time member countries clashed over an issue that has defied all efforts to develop a common policy.
EU policymakers are still more inclined to adopt positions and score points against each other for domestic advantage than to seek practical compromises that can help forge a common approach. And even if attitudes and hearts have hardened in most European countries, simply calling for a more impermeable “Fortress Europe” is not a coherent policy.
At a summit scheduled for Thursday and Friday, European leaders are expected to debate the issue again, but the predictable north-south and east-west divisions are already emerging.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, fearing losing provincial elections to be held in mid-March, is increasing pressure to keep migrants locked in southern Europe. He wants the European Commission to monitor the application of the long-violated Dublin Regulation, which requires countries where migrants first enter the EU to register them, take their fingerprints and process their applications for asylum. asylum.
Of course, this will not concern Greece and Italy, which bear the brunt of those fleeing war, hunger and poverty in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Rome and Athens have long called for greater solidarity and burden-sharing within the EU.
According to a draft communiqué seen by my colleagues at POLITICO, at the summit, European leaders will say that Europe will use “as leverage all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development, trade and visas, as well as legal migration opportunities.” require countries of origin and transit to take back rejected migrants.
Efforts to use such weapons have so far yielded meager results and threaten to damage the EU’s reputation in Africa. The Commission is proposing ways to send more rejected asylum seekers home, but the numbers are discouraging. Less than one in four was expelled last year.
The new Italian Prime Minister, the populist Georgia Meloni, has already sparked a crisis with France in her first weeks in office by closing Italian ports to the boat of an NGO that rescues migrants from the Mediterranean, demanding that Paris take them in. its place. The French government reluctantly admitted a loaded boat as a humanitarian gesture.
Despite this, Italian statistics show that arrivals by sea have continued to rise in the three months since Meloni took office, illustrating how long-term migration trends – driven by climate change , conflict, famine and economic hardship – cannot make headlines. grasping for quick fixes or political rhetoric.
In another article in “Fortress Europe”, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer wants the EU to finance a fence along the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. However, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – who belongs to the same centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) as Nehammer – rejected the use of EU funds for walls and fences, arguing that they were contrary to European values.
Migrants awaiting disembarkation in Toulon after being rescued at sea | Vincenzo Circosta/AFP via Getty Images
Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP in the European Parliament, also got in on the act, urging Germany and France, which financially support humanitarian rescue efforts, to take more responsibility for rescued migrants, while also calling for a code of conduct for NGOs. ships – could this be code for “let them drown”?
“We are heading towards a new migration crisis. Capacity to receive migrants via the Balkan and Mediterranean routes is exhausted,” Weber told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook. “Since the EU failed to adopt a comprehensive policy after the last migration crisis in 2015, the issue has become taboo. Today, it’s coming back in force. »
However, at this point, let us remember that Europe is selective about the types of migrations it considers a crisis and welcomes with open arms.
Nearly 13 million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion crossed the border into the EU in 2022, and they were rightly welcomed thanks to rapidly expanded reception capacity and exceptional flexibility, including the right at work. Many have since returned home, but almost 5 million have registered for temporary protection in the bloc, including 1.5 million in Poland and more than a million in Germany.
According to the European border agency Frontex, 330,000 “irregular arrivals” from the Mediterranean region and the Western Balkans were recorded during the same period, an increase of 64% compared to 2021, when the coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 has kept these numbers low. This is the highest figure since the 2015 migration wave, when more than a million refugees and migrants, mainly from Syria, flocked to the EU.
Last year, the biggest increase was seen on the Western Balkans land route, at least in part because countries like Serbia and Bosnia grant visa-free entry to nationals of African and Asian countries. Many of these migrants were then trafficked across borders to the EU.
However, the Central European countries that have been most magnanimous in welcoming Ukrainians are those that refused to accept Syrian or Afghan fugitives in 2015-2016 – even though Europe’s legal and moral obligation to protect refugees from war and persecution are supposed to be colored. blind to religion.
This is not only an ethical question, it is also a question of economic and demographic sense. Many EU countries face growing labor shortages, which are hampering economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and threatening to limit potential long-term growth.
With a falling birth rate and an aging population, Germany needs 400,000 more workers a year, many of them to fill unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. France has hundreds of thousands of vacancies, with cafes, bars and restaurants closing or limiting their opening hours due to lack of staff. Most European countries also need more healthcare workers to keep their health services running and care for the growing number of elderly people.
This does not mean that the EU should give up on controlling migration. The political damage and loss of public trust caused by the perceived loss of control of European borders in 2015 cannot be denied.
It simply means that we should look for practical and humane ways to channel inevitable migration flows – without practicing a beggar-thy-neighbor policy or trying to build an illusory fortress.