Graham Watson: I told Sarkozy he is wrong on migration

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The leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe parliamentary group wants the EU to take advantage of the experience of Canada instead of blindly following a restrictive policy focusing on deportation, he argued in an interview with EURACTIV. He also shared his views on ‘Mr. Europe’ and the next European elections. 

Graham Watson MEP is leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group in the European Parliament.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You were the initiator of a recently published pamphlet titled ‘Making migration work for Europe’. The forthcoming French Presidency of the EU intends to make migration one of its subjects, but you seem to introduce a different view on the subject. What are your differences with President Sarkozy? 

My interest in this goes back to 1999 when I became chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Justice and Home Affairs. The main event in 1999 in that area was the Temporary Council. It is there that governments committed themselves to the development of a proper immigration policy for Europe. Nearly ten years later, we have still gone nowhere. And probably up till the new Treaty comes into force, we won’t make a lot of progress. 

What has happened is a number of small individual initiatives have been taken on migration. Maybe not all small – one of them is the setting up of Frontex in the Mediterranean. But all of them have been based around the politics of fear, rather than the politics of reason or the politics of hope. Because they’ve all been repressive measures, aimed at sending back people who have been here illegally. Mr. Sarkozy, when he was interior minister, famously deported 25,000 illegal migrants. 

And won the elections. 

Yes, he won the elections, but I’m not sure this is the only reason, I think the failure of the Left was at least as important. What struck me from that time since is that across the political sector, there is a consensus that says “we need a proper migration policy for Europe”. And what I did with this pamphlet was I brought together quite a lot of mainstream people, like Javier Moreno, like Patrick Gaubert, together with Brian Crowley, the leader of the UEN group (Union for Europe of Nations), and Giusto Catania, a former communist (GUE Group, European United Left and Nordic Green Left), and I said “let’s have a go and write an essay to see how our common migration policy could look”. 

And what strikes me is how much common ground there is. People use slightly different language, they have slightly different emphasis, but there is a huge amount of common ground. And I wanted to publish this precisely because we knew that the French Presidency was coming into office and was going to make migration one of its priorities, on the basis of Sarkozy’s election campaign. And when I was in Paris on 10 April, and Sarkozy started to talk to me about migration, I just handed him a copy. I said if you want to know what I think, but also what the whole of European Parliament thinks about migration, this is it. And I hope it will allow us having a proper debate with Sarkozy on migration, rather than simply follow blindly a path of repressive measures against people who come here because there is a demand for their labour. Not because they are inspired by criminal motives. 

You seem to attach importance to the experience of countries such as Canada.

Yes, I think the Canadians, the New Zealanders also, but particularly the Canadians, because they had a lot of migration in recent years, are a good example. In Toronto 50 per cent of the population is first-generation migrant. Yet they managed to do this with social acceptance, with proper policies of integration. They have very strict quotas for migrants, which they divide country by country, but they encourage people and they have a legal migration policy. And by opening the front door to legal migration, they close the back door to illegal migration, because people don’t need to go down that route. And if somebody who has migrated in Canada is found having committed a serious crime, they are sent back to their home country straight away. The system works extremely well, there are host families who receive migrants when they arrive, who take care they are registered with doctors, that their kids get into school and so on. It’s an active citizenship policy for new arrivals and that’s what we need. 

Will immigration be a major subject for the European elections next year? 

I think it may well be. It will depend from country to country, but I think in Greece or in Italy it will be a big issue in the European elections, probably also in the United Kingdom and in France. The real problem is we have no credible answer to give people, unless we set up our own policy. What happens is that we are not doing this, we are allowing people traffickers to set up a policy for us. 

If the mainstream parties take up the issue, it will be less of an issue for the populists. 

Yes. Exactly. What we see however is some people from the mainstream political parties, perhaps on the fringes of those parties, going along with the populists. And sadly we see it from people who subsequently get elected to government, because there are tempted by the kind of populist appeal. Even though these people are often intelligent people who know that we rely on certain amount of migration to provide the social services and so on. 

What other important ideas will be brought into the election debate? 

We will as Liberal Democrats run a campaign on a number of issues, probably primarily economic. We believe Europe has a long way to go in making the single market work properly and in liberalising its economy. There is no doubt that we could create or boost economic growth by having proper markets, for example in energy, across the European Union. We will also look at civil liberties, and things that have happened at European level such as agreements with the United States on airline passenger data. 

What outcome do you expect from the bargaining on the top EU posts following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty? Do you anticipate agreements between the two major political players at the expense of the Liberals? 

Well, I’m very pleased that Jean-Pierre Jouyet, the French European Affairs Minister, said about ten days ago that there should be a political balance between christian-democrats, socialists and liberals. I think it’s important, because we will have to enforce the Lisbon Treaty, and to get the Lisbon Treaty working properly and to get public support for it, we will need support from the three major political families. 

There will inevitably be a certain amount of horse-trading. Inevitably the party which wins the European elections will want to claim at least the President of the Commission and possibly another post as well. But it is not beyond the wit of our political leaders to come up with a solution which advances the interest of the European Union. In other words, which makes sure that competent people are appointed the top jobs, but also respects the political balance. 

Yourself: Are you the candidate of the ALDE group to be the next president of the European Parliament? 

– Well, I would love to declare myself, but the way we work is that the group of members that are elected in the 2009 elections have to decide on whether to have a candidate and if so, who he should be. But I have to tell you that I have been urged, or egged on, by some of my colleagues to be a candidate for the presidency of the Parliament. 

Isn’t there a need a public discussion to take place what the profile of Mr. or Ms. Europe should be? 

I think it would be useful for the European Council to have a further discussion firstly about what kind of person they want as the first full time president of the European Council. Secondly about how they want the High Representative, whoever he or she is, to set up the External Action service. The two big unanswered questions are what kind of role the president of the Council will have and how the External Action service will actually be set up. 

If the EU is unable to decide on Kosovo, what external action are we talking about? 

I’m not sure I’m so depressed about Kosovo. I think in fact we had a remarkable degree of common ground. It’s true that countries have different views as to whether to recognise Kosovo, but we all agreed to send the EU-Lex force. 

The Russian Ambassador to the EU said this mission is illegal. 

I’m sure the Russians and the Serbians will do everything they can to prevent stability in Kosovo. But the European Union has a clear interest in making sure we have it. And the Russians have not, at any stage of this process, come up with a credible alternative securing peace between Albanians and Serbs. 

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