The death of the European dream

Belgium’s prime minister is calling for the re-introduction of border checks. Meanwhile, European leaders are struggling to agree a system of refugee quotas. Matthew Partridge asks: is the ‘European dream’ at an end?

What’s going on?

In response to the attempted terrorist attack on the Paris-Amsterdam train last weekend, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel has called for greater transport security, including possible baggage checks, and suggested that border controls between European Union member states could be reintroduced. This is significant – Michel was previously a big defender of the Schengen agreement that allows European citizens to travel between participating countries without carrying passports or identity documents.

Meanwhile, the current refugee crisis is putting pressure on European governments to deal with immigration. There is a general consensus that the current asylum system is broken, with growing anti-immigration protests and arguments about which country is responsible for dealing with migrants. However, no one knows how to fix it.

Why bring back border controls?

Ever since 1992, EU citizens have been allowed to move freely between member states. A large number of countries also agreed to abolish their internal (ie, those shared with other Schengen countries), but not external, border controls, creating the Schengen Area. However, there are concerns that this means that once migrants get inside this area, either legally or illegally, they can travel at will.

France and Germany, are experiencing an influx of refugees who have been granted temporary asylum elsewhere, but have decided to go to northern Europe for economic reasons. There is substantial evidence that some poorer countries are encouraging refugees to go elsewhere in Europe. Restoring internal border controls would allow countries such as Belgium to distinguish between EU and non–EU immigrants.

So, what’s wrong with internal border controls?

Many people fear that the re-establishment of internal border controls could be a precursor to restrictions on the movement of EU citizens. At the moment the UK (which is not a member of Schengen) is trying to get the EU to agree to allow them to restrict benefits for EU migrants for a certain period.

This is bitterly opposed by eastern European countries, and by many who see it as a violation of  the freedom of movement rules. Internal border checks would also cause practical problems for the estimate 1.8 million Europeans who work in one EU country, but live at least some of the time in another. Indeed, 5% of the people working in the Belgian province of Limburg live full-time in another country.

How should refugees be distributed?

At the moment, refugees are supposed to claim asylum in the first friendly country that they come to. This is meant to deter economic migrants. However, everyone accepts that this is unfair on countries such as Italy and Greece, which get a disproportionate number of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East because of their Mediterranean location.

This disparity is made worse by the economic crisis that Greece is undergoing at the moment. Germany, which has been accepting the largest number of refugees, has been encouraging member states to sign up to a scheme whereby they each take a certain quota, spreading the impact.

Could this scheme work?

Sadly, negotiations towards some sort of quota scheme are failing to make headway. The problem is that countries are very reluctant to make concessions. Eastern European countries, in particular, argue that their relatively low per capita GDP means they should be exempt. They are also concerned about the social impact of letting in refugees.

While some of these concerns sound like racism (Slovakia is not willing to let in any Muslim refugees), there are also more valid concerns that many of the refugees are not in fact fleeing from conflict or persecution, but are instead purely economic migrants (some come from as far away as Senegal). There are also concerns that some may be terrorists. For example, critics point out that the refugees tend to be disproportionately young and male, even though women and children are, in fact, the main victims of the conflicts in the Middle East.

What about securing the coastline?

One solution that has been floated is securing the coastline, which would prevent migrants reaching Italy and Greece in the first place. There have even been suggestions that the EU should simply blockade countries like Libya. However, while the EU has restarted naval patrols of the Mediterranean, in response to a massive outcry over drownings, it has not followed through on promises to destroy the boats of the people smugglers. In any case, this solution would neither solve the problem of migrants coming via the Balkans nor would it solve the problem of how to help genuine refugees.

• We have more on this topic in this piece on the Calais crisis by Simon Wilson from earlier this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *