Why the hysterical reaction to the UN migration and refugee compacts matters

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

Udo Bullmann: "Migration must be well managed, not stopped; we need to invest in people rather than walls." [European Parliament]

Right-wing leaders are guilty of an hysterical reaction to the UN migration compact, writes Udo Bullman MEP.

Udo Bullman MEP is the leader of the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

This week the migration and refugee compacts almost bought down Belgium’s centre-right government. Meanwhile, Poland has joined the USA, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, among others, in confirming that they will refuse to sign the agreements. The Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz explained his country’s decision to withdraw was because of serious concerns about the “mixing up of seeking protection with labour migration.” The Polish government’s statement said that the documents “would threaten their sovereign right to decide who enters their country”, while the Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto went further still, describing the pact as “a threat to the world.”

So what exactly is this compact that threatens global order and will trample over our hard won national sovereignty?

Well firstly, it is actually two separate documents, both of around 30 pages, one covering regular and irregular migration and the other covering refugees. This rather contradicts Sebastian Kurz’s argument that the document conflates asylum seekers with labour migration. In fact, the migrant compact makes very clear that we should treat the two groups separately, on its first page it states: “migrants and refugees are distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks. Only refugees are entitled to the specific international protection as defined by international refugee law.”

Both documents also make clear that these compacts are “legally non-binding” and stress that it is “the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy.” This, again, rather contradicts the Polish government’s critique that the compacts would end the Westphalian system of national sovereignty.

In fact, the more you read of the document, the more clear it is that those arguing against it have never even glanced at it. Far from being a “threat to the world”, it is for the most part made up of uncontroversial recommendations on how states can improve migration processes. For example, states should “harmonise travel documents in line with the specifications of the International Civil Aviation Organisation” or “facilitate regional labour mobility through arrangements such as visa liberalisation.” Although it may not always be scintillating reading, it is hardly the threat to global security than Messrs Trump, Orban and Kurz paint it as.

The hysterical reaction of mainly right-wing governments to these rather mildly worded non-binding agreements would be laughable if there was not a serious issue behind the compacts. Refugees, and migrants, are often in particularly vulnerable positions and open to exploitation. Both compacts set out a series of sensible proposals on how we can better manage the movement of people around the world. This includes commitments to protecting migrant workers from exploitation or preventing and combatting trafficking of people. Surely, these are ideas we can all get behind regardless of our political orientation.

So if the hostility of the right wing has little to do with the contents of these agreements, then what is it about? This forms part of a worrying rejection of multilateral decision making by centre-right parties.  Working together with other countries to deal with common challenges is now presented as an act of treachery against ones homeland. This narrative used to be the preserve of the extreme right, however it is now used by the Republican President of the United States in attacking the WTO, or the supposedly centre-right Austrian Chancellor against co-operation on migration.

These politicians may believe that their nationalist rhetoric will win votes at home but this rejection of multilateralism damages our interests around the world. It plays into the hands of dictators and authoritarians who are happy to echo back the same arguments when we criticise them for human rights abuses. Why would Saudi Arabia or other gulf states heed our complaints about the horrific treatment of migrant labourers within their countries, when we refuse to sign up to a basic set of standards on migration?

If we turn our backs on international rules and universal values then it makes it much easier for others to do the same.

The saddest part is that it is only in the last few years that the centre-right has turned its back on this multilateral approach. Alongside social democrats, politicians from the centre-right in the US and Europe were key in building the international system in the aftermath of World War II. Statesmen such as Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, and Konrad Adenauer saw the need for countries to work together to tackle common problems. They would be horrified by their successors return to nationalism.

On the left, we will never turn our back on international cooperation. We will continue to defend the UN Migration and Refugee compacts from the misinformation campaign and urge all EU and UN member states to sign it on December 10-11 in Marrakesh.

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