Migration has been an ongoing crisis for Europe in recent years, resulting in deaths, destitution, and fierce disagreement. Whether or not people moving to and around the EU was ever a crisis in terms of numbers or importance is irrelevant. The EU elections will be a moment of catharsis around the topic. What is at stake is Europe’s claim to values such as openness and human rights at a time of closed borders and securitisation. Taking the May elections as a chance to investigate further, the Green European Journal asked Caterina Guidi, fellow at the European University Institute, what migration has come to mean in today’s European Union. Disentangling figures from perceptions, she examines how the question of migration is riving Europe to its core.
Within academia as on the streets, if you ask what theme lies at the centre of the 2019 European Union elections, many will answer migration. International flows, asylum seekers, refugees, and irregular migrants are some of the most common and (un)popular words in European politics. Often preceded or followed by terms such as invasion, crisis, emergency, issue, or problem, the idea that migration is bad is more than implied.
Ever since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but particularly after 9/11 and the Arab Spring, the Mediterranean route into the EU has become a crucial passage for the movement of people, a valve for global pressures. Eurozone turmoil, Brexit, and the rise of illiberal and populist governments coincided with humanitarian emergencies to contribute to a perceived ‘accumulation of crises’ among European citizens. Europe has rapidly gone from being ‘under stress’ to ‘under threat’.
Something old, something new
Between the Age of Discoveries and the mid-20th century, some 70 million people left their European homeland for overseas destinations. The recent increase in migrant flows is therefore a partial novelty for the European continent and the EU in particular. Only in the last three decades have there been more people entering the EU than citizens leaving.
Since the 2004 and 2007 enlargement rounds, the movement of Europeans from east to west has increased. The population of some EU countries has fallen, while elsewhere it rose. On top of free movement internally, Europe receives large numbers of immigrants from outside the EU. Nowadays the EU population is 512 million. 22.3 million people or 4.4 per cent of the EU-28 population is a citizen of a non-member country. Whereas 17.6 million EU citizens, almost 3.4 percent of the total population, live in an EU country other than their own. Many more people come to Europe each year with permission to stay. Of 3.1 million of first residence permits in 2017, 16.9 per cent were distributed for education, 32.2 per cent for work, and 26.5 per cent for family reasons. In 2018, 580 800 first-time asylum seekers applied for international protection in an EU country. The movement of people is of course an integral part of human history. But still, a more ethnically diverse population would constitute a novelty for Europe as nationals continue to make up a strong majority in every EU country.
On average, people estimate the share of foreign-born citizens in their country to be double the real number.
As with many aspects of European societies, disinformation and the propagation of parallel narratives presents serious problems for foreign and security policies, and migration is no exception. According to a Eurobarometer survey from 2018, almost 68 per cent of European citizens believe they are confronted, at least once a week, with information that is false or that misrepresents reality. Still more, 83 per cent think that fake news represents a threat to democracy. Disinformation leads people to ignore their ignorance and often overestimate facts and figures, which become reasonable motives for political positions that once seemed extreme. Migration is one area where fake news plays a particularly crucial role. Perceptions of the number and composition of immigrants in a country are highly biased. On average, people estimate the share of foreign-born citizens in their country to be double the real number. Others betray ‘confirmation bias’, where people prefer information which supports their beliefs and reject that which contradicts them. This brings us to so-called deliberate ignorance, the conscious choice not to seek or to use knowledge, and it should not be underestimated in the current ‘post-truth’ times and in the run-up to the European elections.
To navigate this situation, nation states in the EU have three main policy fronts through which to manage migration: the organisation of reception and integration systems, bilateral relations with third countries, and the supranational level on which the 28 member states collaborate. Currently, EU countries continue to resist a coordinated European migration system. Different countries adopt different strategies: Germany suspends the Dublin III Regulation to welcome one million refugees from Syria. Italy receives thousands of asylum seekers, but also has signed an agreement with the Libyan government to prevent more from coming. The EU has signed a deal with Turkey. Austria, Croatia, and France violently push back migrants at the border. Hungary denies food to people denied asylum stuck in border transit zones. The crisis of solidarity between, and created by, national governments dismantles the EU’s leadership in the respect for international human rights.
Something blue: the European identity
Over the last decades, the reinforcement of fences and borders built the idea of ‘Fortress Europe’. Amidst melancholic ideas of dreamy lands, the concept bears some romantic elements: a medieval castle impenetrable to outsiders who threaten the survival of those within. And undoubtedly, migrants bring new cultures and religions, which can sometimes challenge what is considered acceptable or normal behavior in certain communities.
However, ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’ not for European citizens but for people on the move. People are dying inside the walls and out. In Calais’ makeshift camps while trying to get to the United Kingdom. In the south of Italy, employed as modern slaves by mafia networks. In boats in the Mediterranean, after being sent back to Libyan concentration camps, or ignored along the Western Balkans borders. The societies that carry the least of the burden of the humanitarian crisis maintain the hardest stance. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – the Visegrád group – voted against the recent Dublin III reform of the European Parliament to revise the first country of arrival rule. As did Italy, which in principle should have benefitted from the reform making it not alone, along with countries bordering on the Mediterranean like Greece, in bearing the burden of reception.
The elections are a moment for European citizens to express their hopes, fears and doubts at a time when notions of identity, integration and values are all under question.
To better understand the current situation, last December the Italian Parliament issued a new migration law, advocated by Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini and supported by the Five Star-Lega coalition government. The law introduces many important changes: weakening of the reception system and setting clear limits to the future of reception in Italy, abolishing humanitarian protection, and cementing non-collaboration in Europe. Despite protests from activists and NGOs, the law passed in a climate where Italians often feel invaded by migrants, despite figures showing that they overestimate the share of third-country nationals among the population by 17.4 per cent.
The elections are a moment for European citizens to express their hopes, fears, and doubts at a time when notions of identity, integration, and values are all under question. European societies should continue to ask themselves to what extent they agree with accepting, accommodating, integrating, and tolerating different ideas but not different human beings. Europe is itself inescapably a product of diversity. Just as you cannot stop the wind, you cannot stop human beings from seeking better conditions. The question then is what kind of Europe we want to see in 50 years. If someone believes that guaranteeing safe and decent travel conditions to migrants is a question of humanity, or even charity, then accepting them becomes a question of citizenship, for Europe to assume its duty as a moral society. And to become, together, another possible Europe.