Well over a million political refugees and economic migrants from Europe’s Southern and Eastern ‘near abroad’ are this year making their way to, and through, borderless Europe. They are hoping to find safety and a decent living in a handful of countries in Europe's North-West.
Precision is necessary here, as too many people talk of too many different things when invoking the EU’s 'migration crisis'. The famous Polish plumber fixing leaking faucets in London, the Lithuanian setting up a one-man computer workshop in Vienna, the Spaniard tending to gardens in idyllic lake-side villas in Switzerland, the Sicilian pizza baker in Oslo: they are all crossing sovereign borders, not in the traditional sense, but rather as European citizens taking advantage of the fourth and most important European freedom.
Whether formal members of the EU or not (Norway, Switzerland), members of ‘Schengen’ or not (UK, Ireland, Cyprus), all European countries, with a very few Balkan exceptions, basically share the famous four freedoms: trade, capital, services and labor.
A cornerstone of the EU is its unprecedented, continent-wide Friedenswerk (here German is more eloquent than the English equivalent ‘peacebuilding enterprise’). It's not likely to fall, but it's under threat from the present, much larger than usual, wave of migrants and refugees: the migrants mostly from Africa, with some from the Western Balkans; the refugees mostly from Syria. In a figure which has cut through in the recent global media coverage, Germany alone expects a net increase of 800,000 mainly non-European foreigners to its total population of roughly 80 million. The per capita intake in Sweden will likely be even higher. Most come from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds to the majority of the existing populations.
The threat to the EU peacebuilding enterprise comes firstly from the new Eastern Europe EU members. In something of a throw-back to their different, albeit relatively recent political past, they have so far quite simply refused to share the burden that comes with the EU freedoms. Even Poland, poster boy of sensible and successful East European political and economic development since attaining EU membership 20-odd years ago, is only willing to admit a trickle of Christian Syrian refugees. The new and rightist Polish president, Andrzej Duda, justified this policy somewhat brazenly by pointing to the country’s frontline status against Russia’s surging Putinism on Europe’s Eastern border.
So far, a fair distribution of extra-European migrants throughout Europe has been thwarted.
The EU as an institution is not ‘in crisis’ – the Commission proposed sensible solutions long ago – but the EU Council is being blocked by a number of increasingly populist and right-leaning governments. They are not all Eastern European. Indeed the wave of migrants has led to a surge of populist, mainly right wing parties, which threaten the traditional political equilibrium within a number of European countries. The migrant crisis, combined with the problems of Islamic extremism and terrorism both abroad and within Europe, has contributed to a rising perception among voters that borders should again be strengthened and that mobility carries more risks than opportunities.
Of course, the political exploitation of such uncertainty is not an exclusively European phenomenon, echoing similar sentiments expressed by conservatives elsewhere: 'Mexicans overrunning our borders’, ‘boatloads of illegal immigrants off our coast’ and ‘marauding masses threatening the Channel’.
In reality, borders in Europe – both on a continent-wide scale and around individual countries – cannot be completely secured, at least not by democratic states built on the principle of basic rights of the individual, regardless of their passport. Closing them is also impossible in a practical sense: there are always new boat routes across the Mediterranean, or ways around fences as the Hungarian Government, with its hastily erected ‘new iron curtain’, is finding out at present.
Indeed, recent reports suggest that desperate migrants are making their way to Europe through the Arctic route via the north of Russia and Norway. The helpful advice that all migrant policies must start with securing external borders may be well-meant, but is simply not applicable over here.
There is no short-term solution to the European immigrant conundrum. However, there must be more efficient and less shameful ways of managing this influx than the present chaos with its horrifying toll of suffocated refugee families on Libyan boats and Austrian highways. Only by addressing conditions in the countries and regions of refugees' origin, implementing harsh sanctions against human traffickers, and coordinating the reception and distribution of refugees and migrants, will there be any chance of success.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Michaela.