Defuse this explosive migration summit with a strategic EU study

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

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If ever an EU summit seemed doomed, it’s this week’s immigration showdown, writes Giles Merritt.

Giles Merritt is the founder and chairman of Friends of Europe. This opinion piece was first published on that organisation’s website.

Three meetings of EU interior ministers have deadlocked this year on refugees and migration, there was the weekend’s inconclusive mini-summit and now the full-fledged European Council looks set to make a fifth.

Tempers are frayed over beggar-my-neighbour national immigration controls, and the burning question is how to avoid a bust-up. Immigration has become so toxic that it risks poisoning intra-EU relationships for years to come.

What is sure about this summit is that EU leaders won’t come up with a miracle solution; there’s no silver bullet for such a complex problem in such a fraught atmosphere.

The “get out of jail” solution is to launch an independent study by high-level politicians and experts to review the myriad aspects of the problem. Their brief should go far beyond placing limits on immigration and include all the demographic and social factors.

Europe needs a strategy to stretch to mid-century. The more immediate aim should be to re-set public opinion and soften hardline attitudes. The study should show that there is much more to the immigration question than has so far met the public eye.

Many EU governments ‒- that of Germany, too, now that Angela Merkel’s coalition is so wracked by the issue ‒- have been aggravating tensions by bowing to anti-migrant pressures. They have done so for largely electoral reasons, yet have made themselves more vulnerable than ever to the populists.

Until mainstream political parties can point to common policies that reassure voters, populist politicians are able to use fears of mass immigration to wrest power away from them. They will pick responsible EU governments off one by one whenever elections come around.

Much more than domestic politics is at stake. The nationalism preached by anti-migrant populists spells the end of EU solidarity. “Immigration remains the Number One concern of Europeans,” warned the EU Commission when it reported recently that only a fifth of the people surveyed still see immigration positively, while almost two-fifths say it’s a serious problem.

The number of people now living in an EU country where they weren’t born has increased sharply from 34 million in 2000 to 57 million today, representing more than 11% of the 512m total population. A third are ‘free movement’ EU citizens, and two-thirds are non-European. At the same time, argument rages over the extent to which Europe’s ageing means it needs more workers.

In both 2015 and 2016, some 1.2 million refugees and economic migrants arrived in Europe. That influx slowed to 650,000 people in 2017 but was nevertheless three times as many as in 2007.

Governments like to imply that the ‘migrant crisis’ is at an end. In truth, it’s just starting. Legal immigrants ‒- as distinct from refugees and irregular economic migrants ‒- have been arriving since 2010 at the rate of 1.75 million a year, and family reunifications, students and the recruitment of qualified workers suggest that’s sure to rise.

On top of that, climate change and conflicts are sure to push many others to seek a new life in Europe.

Without a common EU-wide approach, there will continue to be much illegal immigration that creates criminalised communities and untaxable black economies.

The mishandling of refugees’ asylum applications has been making matters worse. The core problem is the Dublin Regulation of 2003, which stipulates that refugees fleeing persecution must seek asylum from the EU country they first arrived in. Southern EU countries say this is an unfair burden, but it’s one others refuse to share.

A substantial majority of refugees are deemed really to be economic migrants and are refused political asylum. Many evade repatriation homes and become trapped in limbo to swell the ranks of Europe’s undocumented ‘illegals’.

The deepening migration controversy is paralysing EU-level attempts to create a common asylum system as well as a long-term approach to migration.

With no obvious solution to hand, the European Council should sidestep the various rows involving Italy, Germany, the four Visegrad countries and others by mandating an independent top-level body chaired by a respected figure to review the many complex aspects of immigration.

Its wide-ranging brief would span economic and social issues within Europe as well as external development policies, and it should submit its recommendations to EU leaders before next year’s European Parliament elections.

Immigration is re-landscaping the EU’s political terrain and threatens eventually to tear it apart. A broadly-based and objective analysis of the complex geopolitical shifts taking place is essential, for without it there can be no durable policy solutions.

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