Europe, Immigration and (the lack of) Debate

There are difficult times in Europe today. The economic and financial crisis strangles us; there is political crisis flourishing across the continent; and worst of all, a crisis of values and principles, born and bred here in Europe, is spreading like a gangrene through the voices of populists, xenophobes, Europhobes and ultra-nationalists that we, the citizens, elected and gave stage to.

Gone are the days when to rebuild cities, countries, economies and even our egos, we needed strong, healthy and willing to work (inexpensive) immigrants - a valuable assistance from outside who helped us rebuild as a society and bury the totalitarian spirits deep in our backyard.

In those times "they" were needed and "we" appreciated that. Today that "we" have reached the highest levels of prosperity for decades we found that "they" are part of the causes of the political crisis, the social crisis, the financial crisis and all the other "crises" that are emerging. 

What I have just written could lead, surely, to an intense debate. Some would warn against the dangers of excessive immigration and would defend the need for relentless border control, others would point to the difficulties of integrating immigrants into European culture and the existence of a supposed moral and social superiority of the European culture, and still others would speak of the necessity to manage the migration flows in a more organised and cooperative manner, regardless of whether or not they agree with the need of immigration to cope with the low fertility rates and the predictable shortage of labour force in the most developed European countries.

Well, there is no doubt this is a hot issue and of great interest for Europe. One would assume that this should be on the agenda of the major European parties and it would be a target for numerous proposals and plenary discussions, both nationally and on European level particularly on the road to the European elections held in May 2014.  Precisely the opposite actually happened, mirroring the fear of the main parties and governments of losing votes due to this controversial issue.

And unfortunately those who raised their voice on these issues were ultra-nationalists like Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, among others, in their chauvinistic and populist tone that almost lead us back in the nineteenth century, when the literate class of Europe sought to find in History unique characteristics of each nation, unbreakable by time, constructing identities and own virtues, totally unreachable by other people, ignoring deliberately, that maybe the true identity was found between the various elites of European countries among them and not with their own countrymen.

The problem stems from the European Union’s deliberate choice of not wanting to resolve and decide on these difficult immigration matters effectively and cooperatively. If it is true that the Schengen Area is an integrated free movement zone without internal borders, the absence of a common external border and, especially, a common policy, makes this comparable with the whole integrative process. This can be well-illustrated by a scenario whereby after deciding to cross the river to the other side , a man stops in the middle and does not know whether to reach the other shore or to go back.

When we talk about immigration in Europe, we are actually talking about (at least) two different realities:

(1) for the peripheral countries of Europe, the permeability of their borders has created serious problems around controlling migratory flows coming from Africa and Asia, that neither the European agency Frontex, the old Mare Nostrum nor the new Triton can provide effective solutions to and avoid disasters like those we are currently witnessing in the Mediterranean Sea;

(2) primarily in the countries of Northern Europe there is a high number of asylum seeking applications, especially from Syrians running away from the devastating civil war in their country.

The difficulty in dealing with these different realities at home and especially within the European Union leads us to some obvious conclusions: firstly, a genuine dialogue does not exist because each country, when debating this issue, just looks and cares for their specific situation and secondly, there is not a coherent and compassionate solution in sight, even though the new (insufficient) EU migration strategy efforts are seeking to tackle all the issues on the table (“irregular immigration”, “border management”, “asylum” and “legal migration”).

The member states’ quick negative reactions to the new mechanisms, specially the “quotas” system, make it very clear: without a common European vision, the immigration issue will remain an issue and not a solution, although a new winter can make us forget it.

When the good weather returns, EU mourns the death of nearly 2,000 people who may die at sea and conducts emergency meetings issuing statements saying that they “will mobilize all efforts to prevent and to avoid further loss of life at sea”.

This is the major problem behind the EU and it has a massive impact on the immigration debate (or the denial of it): the lack of solidarity between European Member States. The feeling among many member states seems to be: “lucky me for not having external borders with those countries outside the Schengen area, these problems are within the responsibility of the Italians, the Spanish or Greeks and all the others peripheral countries” as well as “the huge amount of asylum applications in your country is your concern”. And so the theme Immigration is nothing but an authentic maze. Although defended and preached on EU websites as having “a valuable role to play in strengthening the EU's competitiveness, addressing current and future demographic challenges and filling labour shortages”, in reality little or no progress has been achieved so far.

This lack of solidarity is accentuated by the lack of political ambition from those who run the organisation and also by all of us who, again, have failed, demonstrating our indifference through high abstention rates in the 2014 elections and allowing this painful crisis to drag on more and more.

This is the reality: the EU’s economic and political crisis and its effects hardened the citizens of Europe and made us more selfish and more suspicious. The combination of these feelings, coupled with the disbelief in a more integrative and democratic solution for Europe led to this: blaming others, letting ourselves be carried away by populist and easy speeches and closing our eyes to the most credible solution to deal with the issues of immigration: a common policy of a one single European space, with one border.

PS: A draft of this article was originally written one year ago. It’s really sad when you understand that there are so few tiny changes or updates to make. It reflects the small (or none) advances registered in the EU Immigration debate.