30 April 2015

Whilst both national and EU politicians continue to say “we need to do something” to solve the refugee crisis, that “something” still remains unclear. As we have noted previously, there are several areas of joint EU action.

The plaster: short-term options

To avoid tragic deaths at sea, EU leaders are now suggesting “increasing the search-and-rescue possibilities” of Frontex-led missions Triton and Poseidon by tripling their budget for 2015 and 2016.

The fundamental solution: long-term options

There are broadly two avenues of action, with a combination of the two being an option as well:

Removing the push and pull factors: i.e. taking away the incentive to get on the boat in the first place. The UK Government pulled the funding for the search and rescue missions since they argued it acted as an incentive for migrants to make the journey (it has since re-instated the funding). The Italians have suggested that the EU ought to set up migrant reception centres in North and sub-Saharan Africa to process the applications from people who want to come to Europe, to tackle the challenge at source. Some also argue that the EU should follow the Australian example and flat out refuse asylum for those who take the boat route, incentivising the use of such centres.

And of course, the ultimate solution would be to take away the “push factors” – helping to stabilise these countries politically and then raising the standard of living through aid and trade.

“Burden-sharing”: Effectively distributing asylum seekers more equally across the 28 member states based on factors such as prosperity and population size. This is  controversial as it links to how many asylum seekers/refugees the EU collectively and member states individually are willing to accept – and more harmonisation over the approval criteria.

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The European Parliament yesterday voted for a compulsory system of burden sharing while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear that the Commission will be actively pushing for it. The Germans and Swedes are keen too. However, MEPs merely have ‘consultative powers’ on this issue and the Commission has been trying and failing to get the policy off the ground for years. Given how democratically sensitive the issue is, it remains firmly the domain of national governments.

No country for refugees

In theory, if burden sharing can be done effectively in combination with changes to domestic policies that will, say, make it easier for newcomers to transition into the labour market (hello, Sweden!) then one can see how the EU, collectively, could accept more asylum-seekers.

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There’s very little chance of this happening though – the reason being illustrated in the graphs above. In terms of political restrictions, burden-sharing comes up against the full force of national democracy: each EU country just has a different view of what constitutes an acceptable level of immigration. At the moment, only five EU countries take in over 70% of all asylum seekers to the EU. The Poles and the Czechs are good at talking up “European solidarity” when it suits them, whilst bashing the UK for its immigration debate – but take in very few asylum seekers and have no inclination to take more. Ditto Spain.

Sweden and Finland have very similar levels of wealth, yet one takes in nearly 15 times as many asylum seekers as the other. This is very unlikely to change.

Positive asylum decisions in 2014: Sweden vs Finland

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Sweden and Finland have very similar levels of wealth, yet Sweden took in nearly 15 times as many asylum seekers as Finland last year.Source: Eurostat

Despite only 2.5% of the Finnish population being foreign-born, the ‘immigration nervous’ Finns Party managed to come second in the country’s election recently, which is an accomplishment on number of levels. I personally think this is wrong but I am hardly in a position to uproot Finland’s democratic settlement. This is also why the ‘voluntary’ burden sharing system suggested by some would make limited difference as only those countries with already high levels would take part.

So short of pushing the entire challenge offshore, alas, there’s zero democratic mandate in some countries at the moment for an EU migration policy based on more equally distributed responsibility. The way the debate is heading in Germany and Sweden, I wouldn’t bet on these two countries maintaining their current levels either.