Europe’s dishonorable migration battles – POLITICO

Paul Taylor is editor-in-chief of POLITICO.

PARIS — Migration is back on the European Union’s agenda, but sadly little has changed since member countries last clashed over the issue that has defied all efforts to a common policy.

EU politicians are always more inclined to postulate and score points against each other for national advantage than to seek practical compromises that could help forge a common approach. And although 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 on Thursday and Friday, EU leaders are now ready to debate the issue again, but the predictable north-south and east-west divides are already showing.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, fearful of losing in the provincial elections to be held in mid-March, is stepping up pressure to keep migrants locked up in southern Europe. He wants the European Commission to monitor the application of the long flouted Dublin regulation, which obliges countries where migrants first enter the EU to register them, take their fingerprints and process their applications for asylum.

This will not fade with Greece and Italy, of course, as they 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 EU solidarity and burden sharing.

According to a draft statement seen by my POLITICO colleagues, at the summit EU leaders will say that Europe will use “as leverage all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development, trade and visas, as well as opportunities for legal migration”. oblige countries of origin and transit to take back rejected migrants.

Efforts to wield such weapons have yielded meager results so far, and they threaten to damage the EU’s reputation in Africa. The Commission is proposing ways to get more failed asylum seekers sent home, but the numbers are disheartening. Less than one in four was expelled last year.

Italy’s new prime minister, populist Georgia Meloni, has already sparked a crisis with France in her first weeks in office by closing Italian ports to an NGO boat that rescues migrants from the Mediterranean, demanding that Paris take them instead. The French government reluctantly admitted a shipment as a humanitarian gesture.

Despite this, Italian statistics show 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 – do not lend themselves to headlines. grab quick fixes or political rhetoric.

In other ‘Fortress Europe’ news, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer wants the EU to fund 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 – has refused to spend EU funds on walls and fences, arguing they are contrary to European values.

Migrants awaiting disembarkation in Toulon after being rescued at sea | Vincenzo Circosta/AFP via Getty Images

Migrants awaiting disembarkation in Toulon after being rescued at sea | Vincenzo Circosta/AFP via Getty Images

Manfred Weber, EPP leader in the European Parliament, also swung into action, urging Germany and France, which financially support humanitarian rescue efforts, to take greater responsibility for the rescued migrants, while also calling on to a code of conduct for NGOs. ships – could this be code for “let them drown”?

“We are sleepwalking into a new migration crisis. The capacities to receive migrants via the Balkan and Mediterranean routes are 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. He now returns with a vengeance.

However, at this point, let us remember that Europe is selective about the types of migration it treats as a crisis and welcomes with open arms.

Nearly 13 million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion entered the EU in 2022, and they were rightly welcomed with rapidly expanding reception capacity and exceptional flexibility, including the right to work. Many have since returned home, but nearly 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 EU border agency Frontex, 330,000 “irregular arrivals” from the Mediterranean region and the Western Balkans were recorded in the same period – a 64% increase compared to 2021, when the pandemic of COVID-19 has kept the numbers low. It was the highest number since the migration wave of 2015, when more than a million refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, swept into the EU.

The biggest increase last year was seen on the Western Balkan 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 smuggled across borders to the EU.

However, the Central European countries that have been most generous 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 sheltering refugees from war and persecution is supposed to be color blind and blind to religion.

This is not only a question of ethics, it is also a question of economic and demographic good sense. Many EU countries are facing growing labor shortages, which are hampering economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and threatening to limit potential long-term growth.

With its declining birth rate and aging population, Germany needs 400,000 more workers a year, many of them in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. France has hundreds of thousands of vacancies, with cafes, bars and restaurants closing or restricting opening hours due to lack of staff. Most European countries also need more carers to keep their health services running and to care for the growing number of elderly people.

This does not mean that the EU should give up controlling migration. The political damage and loss of public trust caused by the perceived loss of control over Europe’s borders in 2015 cannot be disputed.

It is simply to say that we should look for practical and humane ways to channel the inevitable migration flows – not play beggar politics or try to build an illusory fortress.


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