In the face of a surge in the number of refugees arriving within its borders, Europe found itself in the midst of a crisis last year – one that tore at the fabric of the European Union. What we witnessed was not truly a European “refugee crisis”. Much less so a “migrant crisis”. It was a crisis of European policies; a crisis of solidarity. While governments demonstrated a lack of commitment to finding a truly European solution, the response from the general public to the influx of refugees ranged from warm welcomes to xenophobia. While the reasons behind this vary from country to country, a number of important contributing factors can be identified.

A small group of countries had to take much of the strain caused by the sudden increase in immigration – either as transit countries or final destinations. Greece, Italy and Hungary buckled under
the pressure of ever-increasing numbers of people entering their territory. Croatia and Slovenia followed. They faced difficulties in effectively processing asylum applications, as prescribed by the Dublin Convention, and struggled to provide immediate humanitarian relief. Attempts in the beginning to cope with the influx quickly gave way to a policy of waving people through to neighbouring countries, before finally turning to the (re)construction of fences. Just three countries – Germany, Sweden and Austria – were the target destinations for 95% of new arrivals. Each received large numbers of people within a few months. While other countries, such as the Netherlands, also saw an increase, it was nothing beyond what they had been able to handle in the past.

The unequal distribution of arrivals within the EU, whereby less than a third of all EU member states were countries of transit or destination, left certain countries under strain while others remained mostly unaffected. Yet the supposed threat of increased immigration was instrumentalised by populist politicians to bolster anti-EU sentiments, limiting the options for governments to find workable European solutions. There is little, if any, correlation between the number of immigrant arrivals and the degree of anti-immigrant sentiments, as the countries least affected by the crisis have displayed some of the strongest xenophobic rhetoric.

“Xenophobia has all too often merged with Euroscepticism, making support for pan-European cooperation all the more unpopular”

Fear-driven anti-European politics, amplified by the TV images of a seemingly endless stream of people, overtook much-needed cooperation and solidarity on a European level. With a few notable
exceptions, politicians from many mainstream parties refrained from correcting this narrative, and indeed often saw no other option than to adopt the same rhetoric in an attempt to prevent losses at the polls. This misguided strategy resulted in an even more reactionary stance towards immigration within societies. Few politicians chose to stand behind and strengthen the more open, but far less vocal and politically-unified, “refugees welcome” movement.

There has been an apparent lack of incentives for national leaders and governments to actually work together towards finding common solutions. Despite the existence of a powerful EU bureaucracy, politicians are accountable to their own national electorates, not Europe as a whole. In the political context of blaming Brussels for the many failures of national governments, there was little willingness to strive for a European solution to the crisis. The notion that immigration poses a threat to security, the labour market and national culture, and is an affront to the European way of life, became an effective rallying cry for mobilising the electorate. This has resulted in an unhealthy climate in which xenophobia has all too often merged with Euroscepticism, making support for pan-European cooperation all the more unpopular.

Finding a common European answer to last year’s crisis was made particularly difficult by the absence of a clearly-formulated and communicated European vision on migration. While the European Commission has, as a reaction to the developments of 2015, pushed forward proposals leading to the harmonisation of Europe’s migration, border and protection systems, these are not embedded within a wider framework of clear policy objectives. The absence of robust common policies has led to short-term restrictive measures and a race to the bottom, with member states trying to make their protection and social assistance systems less attractive to immigrants and refugees.

But a Europe in which each country only looks out for itself is a Europe that is doomed to fail. Nationalist populism cannot offer solutions for the future. It hampers progress and will prevent the development of effective approaches to dealing with the migration and protection challenges of the near future. The only way to guarantee a functioning migration management system is to implement future-orientated policies and structures at the EU level, embedded within the global objectives as set out by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

To start with, there is a clear need to base Europe’s migration, integration and protection policies on understandable and actionable objectives. The European Commission should take the lead in formulating these objectives with the support of an advisory group comprised of migration experts, EU and member state officials, and representatives of both the private sector and civil society. This group’s work should include an assessment of demographic developments, an evaluation of future labour market needs, and consider various scenarios regarding the development of protection needs and systems. At the same time, there should be a careful examination of member states’ genuine absorption capacities and existing and expected integration challenges. There should be a sober evaluation of any potential security risks.

“There is a clear need to base Europe’s migration, integration and protection policies on understandable and actionable objectives”

More emphasis needs to be placed on explaining the EU’s functioning to the population – not just in the context of the migration discussion, but more generally too. The strengths, weaknesses and
responsibilities of national governments and European institutions need to be better understood if any healthy debate on Europe’s future is to emerge. European education systems, as well as
media organisations, should be used to bring Europe closer to the population, and provide for a debate based on facts instead of unfounded rumours or misguided criticism. With the possible exception of Euronews, the lack of a true European mass media currently limits the exposure to an alternative narrative on Europe, at a time when “experts” seem reviled.

Likewise, to develop sound migration policies, it’s important to depoliticise the topic of migration and arrive at a rational, fact-based discussion. Migration as a political issue has become inseparable from questions of security, integration and intangible values to such an extent that it has become difficult to coherently separate migration as a process and a debate from other, often unrelated, topics. Voters are mobilised around immigration as a hot-button topic – often without being exposed to the reality on the ground. Appealing to our humanitarian obligations is not enough; to move forward, Europe as a society needs an informed, honest and rational discourse on migration.

Politicians and the general public will need to accept that migration is an inextricable part of human development, and as such is unavoidable. Modern, open societies are best equipped to deal with this reality, whereas nationalist populism represents an illusion, tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand. Only once migration is an accepted fact, fully integrated along with globalisation into the political arena, can we start to devise functioning, democratically-legitimised and socially-accepted policies that are in step with broader global developments.

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