By Bill Wirtz, courtesy of the Austrian Economics Center
With the presentation of the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum,” the European Commission is trying to answer one question: what happens if Europe experiences another refugee crisis like the one in 2015 (which is ongoing)? Let’s first provide a brief recap of what readers need to know about the status and situation of refugees in Europe.
In essence, the EU can be divided into two blocs: those countries that accept large numbers of refugees, and those who do not. According to the EU’s regulation (known as the Dublin regulation), refugees need to apply for asylum in the first country of entry — which, as they are not allowed the fly — is usually Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, or Italy. Practice, however, looks very different. Refugees move through European countries to get to their destination of choice, often Germany or Sweden, due to better incentives, usually larger allowances, higher expectations of family reunification, and better infrastructure.
The Dublin regulation was created to avoid situations in which refugees apply in multiple member states at a time, but it has led to crowding of migratory flows. If member states can prove the exact country of first entry, they can deport applicants to that country. Starting in 2015, the crossing of borders to reach countries such as Germany created hostilities between member states. Countries such as Hungary rejected these crossing and requested EU funds for the creation of a border fence, mainly covering the border with neighboring Serbia. Meanwhile, deportations to countries of origin and the closing of border crossings have led to overcrowded migrant camps in Italy and Greece, which feel left out by their European counterparts.
The European Union has clear and well-established freedom of movement between member states: any EU-citizen can live and work freely in any of the 27. The Schengen Treaty establishes that signatory countries (some EU countries are not part of Schengen, yet some non-EU countries are) do not implement border checks (expect for requested emergencies and for the purpose of customs (for example at airports).
In 2015, Brussels had made a push for a mandatory quota-system, which would force member states to accept refugees on a per capita basis. This had not only failed in the Council, but also deepened the divide between member states.
The new migration pact primarily consists of two non-revolutionary proposals. On one side, the Commission backs the idea that countries that are hesitant to take in refugees make financial contributions to those that do. This “compromise” is supposed to throw countries such as Hungary a bone, making Budapest part of the solution to a possible future migrant crisis, while scoring well with right-wing voters who reject the entry of foreign ethnicities. However, it probably won’t help that some Commission officials have coined this aspect as “mandatory solidarity.”
The second pillar of the proposal is more comprehensive agreements with non-EU neighbors on creating a “safe harbor” for refugees. This mirrors the 2016 EU agreement with Turkey, which paid out €3 billion to Ankara in order to host refugees in the Middle East, while making both sides unhappy.
Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have already announced their opposition to the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, not only the “mandatory solidarity” concept was a problem, but also the mere concept of not stopping migrants at the EU’s borders altogether. It is expected that Austria and Slovakia could join the coalition of countries opposing this new Commission proposal.
The Hungarian opposition to any migration will halt any compromise solution on the issue. However, that does not mean that there are sensible solutions on the subject of migration. For once, instead of funneling billions into “safe harbor” countries, Europe should play a more active role in creating more prosperity in these regions by trading more extensively. Tariffs and non-tariff barriers, as well as the EU’s tendency to protect everyone inside the Single Market while restricting those wishing to export to the EU, have held back countries wanting to grow. If large-scale logistics services or agricultural exports were eased, then more low-skilled workers would decide to remain in their neighboring countries, as opposed to making long and deadly journeys.
As for inside Europe itself, member states need to overcome their own labor regulations, and thus their own trade unions, in allowing new arrivals to pick up work without stringent requirements. The bureaucratic hurdles for refugees to seek and get work have thrown them into a loop of dependency on the welfare state, which is both unproductive and expensive. If countries were to channel the inflow of refugees into an influx of workers and entrepreneurs (as small-scale entrepreneurship already has a vibrant culture in the Middle East), then their leading example would serve skeptics as a valuable counterargument.
The European Union will be unable to convince migration skeptics to jump on board a scheme that makes them foot the bill for the incoherent policies of the past. Their opposition is understandable, yet they carry part of the blame. The policy of member states of viewing refugees as dependents rather than as an opportunity of importing creators has stigmatized refugees and fueled much of the hostilities against them. We should move away from endless welfarism and treat migration as a win-win opportunity.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator from Luxembourg. His works have been published in The Times of London, the Washington Examiner, Newsweek, Die Welt, and Le Monde.