More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015. The migrants have caused discord among European states and divisions within the European Union. The European Commission guesses that 1.3 million migrants will arrive in 2016. The flat-line scenario is a low-ball estimate, given that the number of asylum seekers doubled from 2013 to 2014 and doubled again from 2014 to 2015. According to new data from the International Organization for Migration, the numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe has already passed more than 100,000 this year. By contrast, in 2015, migrant arrivals reached 100,000 in June.
In 2015 the European migration debate centered on two issues: the distribution of asylum seekers and border controls. The European Union focused almost exclusively on the former. Brussels tried to force increased willingness to accept asylum immigrants, especially among the 17 out of 28 member states that have restrictive asylum policies. Officials thus dispensed 160,000 asylum seekers in the face of intense opposition. But the numbers of migrants did not subside; it rose sharply. Strange as it may sound, it did not occur to Europe’s political elites that increasingly supply of asylum might increase demand for the same.
This smothered the all-in-it-together-spirit. As autumn turned to winter Europe wallowed in acrimony. Focus shifted towards tightening border security, but with little discernable effect. Unlike in previous years the flow of migrants has continued unabated through the winter months. Where will it end? The politically correct answer is, “in a European solution.” But the EU response to the migration crisis has resembled a drunk attempting to open canned food with a spoon: an almost touching faith that a lack of conviction is the only obstacle on the path to success. Late night summits, byzantine compromises and megaphone diplomacy have failed to bring the situation under control. The EUs preferred means have not done the trick.
The mood in Brussels has soured. Recent summits have been marred by recriminations and hostility. National-conservative “Orbanites” stand against socially liberal “Merkelians.” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker summarized the challenge in his most famous quip: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” European leaders’ willingness to compromise is diminished by the certainty that they sooner or later will have to face voters angry about their seeming inability to prevent the Arab world from empting its population surplus into Europe. Eager for a quick fix, the EU has given itself to the diplomatic equivalent of alchemy, in which they hope to bribe Turkey to stop the migrants departing from its shores. The cunning plan hinges on the Turks willingly denying themselves the free money the EU is likely to rain down on them if they fail to do so.
The only way to feel good about the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis is to set it beside the nation states of Europe. Who can forget Sweden’s sobbing leaders at the press conference when they announced that they had reintroduced border controls; or when the Daily Mail published cartoons equating refugees with rats; or German authorities’ advice to women on how to avoid being violated by the “Willkommenskultur”? Neither xenophobia, nor idealism or comparing each other to Nazis has brought the situation under control.
Germany finds itself in a particular fix, having received more than a million asylum applications in 2015 and with an increasingly panicked public opinion fretting over who will protect them against the outfall from this sociological experiment. Germany unilaterally suspended the Dublin treaty, which would have made it possible to return migrants to their first port of arrival to be processed. Most east European countries have rejected Germany’s proposed mechanism for redistributing these migrants, preferring instead to build border fences. As the migrants keep flooding in Angela Merkel seems caught in the headlights. The word «Merkeln» was chosen as the «youth word of the year» in Germany for 2015. The word is not flattering, meaning being indecisive, or failing to have an opinion– traits that Germans often attribute to their Chancellor.
When the story of Europe’s migrant crisis is to be written, Europe’s mainstream media will warrant a chapter of its own. In this chapter the liberal house organ The Economist will have a central place. The London-based publication is many ways the only genuine pan-European news-source. The magazine remains influential among Europe’s elites. According to the magazine’s former editor: “Merkel listens to the Economist’s audio app in the car.” Under its new editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes the newspaper has lurched to the left, advocating utopian immigration policies as the only alternative. At times its leaders seemed almost to be a personal plea directed at the German chancellor, imploring her to trump the “politics of fear” with “the politics of dignity.” It must have come as a rude awakening when confronted with the predictable outfalls of the policies it had advocated The Economist in 2016, made an about face. After having praised Merkel’s open liberal policies as politically, morally, and economically astute, the newspaper now has concluded that much the opposite is the case.
So are there any solutions in sight? Even a moderate ambition of bringing the number of migrants down to the high levels from before 2015 seems to be beyond the reach of Europe’s policy elites. Few in Brussels believe that the mechanisms coming on-stream will be enough to bring migrant numbers down. The EU’s new “border force” is unlikely to be given the resources, personnel, or robust mandate needed to make a difference, if past experience is anything to go by. The threats to suspend Greece from the Schengen zone, effectively turning the country into Europe’s refugee camp seem similarly unworkable. Even EU leaders now recognize that the EUs Schengen system of border-free travel is growing unsustainable. Several states have introduced “temporary” border controls. The new border fences zigzagging Europe indicate that Schengen has entered the same ‘permanent state of emergency’ as Europe’s common currency, where few actually observe the rules.
European countries are now engaging in an undignified race to make themselves less attractive asylum destinations. Danish lawmakers voted in favor of controversial legislation empowering authorities to seize cash and valuables from asylum seekers to help cover their expenses. Eager not to have the most liberal policies the German parliament now considers proposals to delay most family reunification for two years and swipe Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia off the list. Yet less generous treatment of asylum seekers has so far proved surprisingly ineffective. This is, in part, because everyone knows that many of those who are rejected in reality will be allowed to stay in Europe. The increasing proportion of asylum seekers coming from peaceful countries tells the same story: to many, life as an undocumented migrant in Europe is better than staying at home. Paradoxically the migrant crisis is less a result of poverty, than a byproduct of development: ever more people in Africa and Asia have the money and aspirations to embark on the perilous journey.
Baseless asylum seekers make up 60 percent of the total, according to EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. Many of these come from countries that do not respect human rights. This makes them difficult to repatriate. Referring to the UN Refugee Convention European courts bar states from sending anyone back to countries where they run a danger of false imprisonment, torture, and the like. Estimates vary, but mainstream estimates suggest that around forty per cent of groundless asylum seekers stay in Europe. This is due to a standard practice in which rejected asylum seekers are allowed go underground. Many will enter Europe’s five to eight million-strong communities of illegal migrants, concentrated in places like Belgian Molenbeek: A subclass of marginalized non-citizens with an obvious potential for radicalization.1
The sheer weight of asylum seekers put Europe’s welfare states under strain, or more precisely, they put further pressure on already underfinanced welfare schemes. Due to low birth rates ever fever Europeans pay into the collective schemes and ever more benefit from them. Needless to say Europeans are more eager to blame migrants for exposing these shortfalls than they are to blame themselves for creating them. This means that the area of conflict in 2016 is set to expand from distribution and borders and towards international laws and welfare rights. This brings supranational institutions and the universal welfare state to the fore. Many states now look to limit migrants’ access to welfare benefits. The assumption that Europe will prove significantly better at integrating more undereducated immigrants with fewer resources per head is a tale of how a set of assumptions were elevated to the level of self-evident truths and pursued to a point where the internal contradictions are blatantly obvious.
One way to break out of this spiral, the President of Finland Sauli Niinistö pointed out in his speech to parliament on February 03, is “to abrogate the right of asylum.” The debate is currently raging between those who see “the right to asylum” as a core European value and those who argue that asylum was never meant to be a migration mechanism. The challenge is that European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has handed down judgments that are seen as perpetuating the current asylum regime. European states are obliged to comply with these judgments, but resentment is growing.
The dispute is between “legalism” and “parliamentarianism.” The parliamentarian primacy assumes that power lies with the people, through its elected representatives. The EU is founded on a different idea: a political space that is guarded by judges to protect people from arbitrary authority and against their own illiberal inclinations. Tensions between national governments, on the one hand, and the Council of Europe and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on the other, point to an intensified struggle between lawyers and politicians over supremacy over asylum. President of the Belgian Constitutional Court Marc Bossuyt has criticized ECHR in strong words:
The European Court of Human Rights is exceedingly transgressing its competence in asylum matters. The Court takes decisions on behalf of the national authorities, it enforces provisional measures despite not having the competence to do so and demands their immediate execution. It has granted property rights on unemployment benefits and has thus realized something that Karl Marx never could. The Court is being buried under new cases, partially caused by the fact that it has sneakily broadened its own competences.
European institutions and states have not been able to gain control of their borders, nor have they arrived at an equitable division of labor. As the numbers of migrants seem set to reach new record numbers in 2016 the political focus seems to be shifting towards states seeking to make themselves less attractive asylum destinations by curbing welfare rights and a backlash against “legalism.” In sum: The inclination to muddle through has brought Europe to the point that all options seem ineffective, drastic, or unethical—or conversely a combination of all three.
1Molenbeek is considered a hotbed of Euro-Jihadism and a staging ground for the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015.