The Arab Spring and the EU’s internal open borders
Over the last week there has been growing political pressure to review the Schengen system of open internal borders inside the Continental EU. President Sarkozy led the call, reacting to the appearance in Italy of thousands of Tunisians, irregular migrants escaping the instability in North Africa. They arrived in Italy due to the relative ease of crossing by boat to the island of Lampedusa, but as French speakers, many with links to France, they mostly saw Italy as a transit route, and reports indicate that hundreds have already arrived in Paris. The Schengen countries long ago dismantled their internal border controls, so there is no practical way of stopping them.
The wider issue here is that the problem of irregular migration is spread unevenly – and arguably unfairly – across different member states. Some states get more than their ‘fair share’ in terms of where migrants first arrive in the EU. Greece and Spain, as well as Italy, fall in this category. Other states get more than their ‘fair share’ in terms of where migrants aim to end up. Britain has for various reasons generally been in this category, along with Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. In this latest dispute, Italy is the arrival country, France the destination country – though in the past, France has more often been in a third category, a transit route for those arriving in Italy or Spain but aiming to end up in Britain. In fact the British immigration minister Damian Green is already worrying about whether some of the Tunisians will keep going through France to the desperate unofficial camps around Calais from which migrants make daily and dangerous attempts to reach Britain.
Ten years ago, these camps were far bigger, many more reached Britain, and large numbers claimed asylum. The asylum system – international and domestic – had not been designed with this phenomenon in mind. Large flows of people displaced by a variety of factors, relatively few through individual persecution, many more through conflict or failed and failing states, and most of all those travelling in search of economic opportunity.
Today, as most EU states have followed Britain’s lead in toughening their asylum systems, asylum is no longer a particularly attractive option for irregular migrants. But the basic problem of the uneven or unfair distribution of these migrants across the EU remains, and this latest attempt to agree a fairer or more rational solution will founder for the same basic reason – because too many member states feel they would lose more than they would gain. Any proposal for sharing irregular migrants, let alone more radical options like regularisation, might relieve the burden on Italy, Greece and Spain, but would be blocked by countries like Germany and the Netherlands – and on this occasion, France. Likewise any proposals for allowing states to re-impose internal borders, on anything other than a temporary and ad hoc basis – even supposing this was remotely practical, which it is not.
Some observers, however, have suggested that this time things will be different. They argue that rising public concern over immigration, together with concern over bailouts, could halt the process and mindset of ever closer European integration, or even send it into reverse. Are these suggestions plausible in relation to immigration? It is certainly true that attitudes have hardened across Europe over the last decade, exacerbated by the economic downturn. A recent survey by Transatlantic Trends showed big majorities across major EU states insisting that their national governments, rather than the EU, must control which and how many immigrants are let in. It is hardly a surprise that 85% of British respondents feel this way; but over two thirds of people in ‘destination’ countries inside the Schengen system, like Germany and the Netherlands, now agree. Even in countries like Italy, where people feel they are shouldering an unfair share of the burden, increasing numbers reject an EU solution, preferring that their national government get tougher on immigration instead.
Despite this current in public opinion, the current situation might actually strengthen the case for European co-operation. Through the last decade, when the British government was urging other member states to get serious about irregular migration, there was relatively little interest across the EU. Now, with the hardening of public attitudes, there is consensus that it is a priority. If reviewing the Schengen system of open internal borders is likely to come up against the familiar problem of reconciling the interests of transit and destination countries, a more constructive approach, picking up on the findings of a recent IPPR report, would be to broaden out the focus beyond trying to control the point at which migrants cross borders. An exclusive focus on what happens at the border obscures both ‘upstream’ issues, like how best to co-operate with source and transit countries outside the EU to discourage or prevent irregular travel; and ‘downstream’ issues, like how to make the EU a more unattractive environment for working illegally once migrants arrive here.
In fact, what is required is an integrated approach across this whole spectrum. For example, the potential impact of ‘downstream’ measures to make EU labour markets more unattractive for working illegally will not be fully realised if the results are not publicised ‘upstream’ in source and transit countries. IPPR’s research suggested a large majority of migrants working illegally in Britain would strongly advise fellow nationals against following them. They felt life was much harder than a decade ago, and much harder than they expected. But for various reasons these views are either not heard, or not believed, back home.
Many of these issues should, in theory, lend themselves to collective EU action rather than unilateral or bilateral action by individual countries. EC President Barroso has made a start on ‘upstream’ issues by suggesting that that EU aid to Tunisia be made conditional on action to reduce irregular migration. It would be better if Sarkozy channelled his undoubted energy into establishing a serious EU taskforce on the full spectrum of the irregular migration problem, rather than seeming to line up with those who seek to use the immigration issue to turn countries inward and divide Europe rather than unite it. And if there is a serious effort at EU cooperation on this issue, it would be good to see Britain play a full part. As a country which has been at the forefront of developments in immigration policy and practice over the last decade, we have a responsibility to share this experience, and we might have more to gain than we think.
Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPRTagged in: Damian Green, eu, irregular migration, migration, Nicolas Sarkozy
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