Migration issue calls for leadership

Unlike the issues that the EU is accustomed to discussing – such as trade agreements, directives on specific areas of industry, etc. – there has to date been no consensus on even the most basic aspects of the migration crisis.

It is too early to comment on whether the outcome of the Valletta Migration Summit, being held over these two days and attended by numerous European and African leaders, will prove helpful to defuse the ongoing humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders.

The summit does however provide an important platform for the issue to be discussed by the people who matter the most: the European Union, which must somehow resolve its internal disputes in order to reach consensus on how to tackle the phenomenon; and the governments of many countries in the regions from which so many people annually risk their lives in the hope of a better life elsewhere.

From the outset, any hope of a lasting, concrete commitment involving all parties has been faint. Unlike the issues that the EU is accustomed to discussing – such as trade agreements, directives on specific areas of industry, etc. – there has to date been no consensus on even the most basic aspects of the crisis.

At all levels, there is profound disagreement between individual member states. Some have opted out of Commission programmes aimed at saving lives in the Mediterranean, or declined to provide assets to EU initiatives such as Frontex. A ‘refugee relocation programme’ pushed by the Commission, failed to attract consensus.

Europe’s approach has so far been fragmented and litigious: in a word, as far from a ‘Union’ as it is possible to be.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the enormity of the problems associated with this issue. On paper, accepting and integrating asylum seekers is an obligation mandated by numerous binding treaties. Also on paper, all member states agree with this obligation in principle.

But recent experience also delineates the limit of European generosity in this regard. The logistical pressures are enormous, and there is a political dimension to take into account. By accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees, as Germany did this summer, the EU will be placing considerable demands on its citizens. It will cause social strains in the short term… and up to a point, electoral cycles force most governments to only think in the short term.

But if there’s one other thing that all European member states also agree to on paper, it is that the ongoing migration issue also represents an opportunity. It is an open secret that Europe’s ageing demographics spell serious economic trouble ahead. Europe’s workforce is retiring at a far greater rate than younger workers are joining the labour market. Anyone with any knowledge of basic economics will understand that – short of increasing the birthrate, which cannot be achieved overnight (if at all) – controlled immigration has to lie at the heart of any workable solution to this impending time-bomb. 

From this perspective, an influx of mostly young foreign workers could almost (were it not for the logistical and social implications) be viewed as a godsend. It remains to be seen, however, whether short term political considerations will trump a long term approach to a problem that is as much Europe’s as Africa’s.

What must be done for the positive to prevail?  It is often said that Europe grows stronger in times of crisis. But that isn’t how things currently look. On the contrary it almost seems as though the refugee emergency is bringing out the worst in Europe: xenophobia, nationalism and interminable responsibility buck-passing.

But the exodus of refugees this summer also offers the possibility for reflection. Tragic though it may be, the crisis povides Europe with the opportunity to show that it takes seriously the values spelt out in its treaties.

A good start would be an agreement at the Valletta summit on a fair distribution plan, so that EU countries like Italy and Greece, Germany and Sweden are not forced to carry the lion’s share of the weight. Sadly, the mutual distrust among Europe’s heads of government makes such an agreement nigh to impossible. 

Europe’s long-term goal, though, has to be that of fighting the causes of migration. Of course, Europe won’t be able to quickly impose peace on war-torn Syria, or transform countries like Eritrea into prosperous democracies. 

But at the moment, EU member states aren’t even trying to look beyond the bloc’s external borders. EU countries agreed 10 years ago to increase their development aid to 0.7% of their gross domestic products; but hardly any member state has achieved that goal.

Instead, the EU is planning new incentives to encourage African countries of origin to take back rejected asylum seekers. At the EU-Africa summit in Malta, the European Commission intends to offer €1.8 billion more for an EU-Africa trust fund – but the money will only be provided in exchange for ‘cooperation’ on that front.

Is this enough to make a real difference to the economic fortunes of Africa? Clearly not. Europe needs to make a clear commitment towards creating legal channels for people fleeing wars, starvation, dictatorships and climate change. Europe must also stop propping up dictatorships and instead help people in Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia realize their dreams in their homelands and not in another continent.

But to do so, leadership must be shown. Where this leadership will come from has yet to be seen.