Christos Mouzeviris sees a threat in both regular immigration and refugees to the EU – unless the EU formulates a thoughtful, fair and coordinated immigration policy.
With Brexit now cemented after the British elections last month, we are starting to taste the first consequences of the populist and Eurosceptic policies and governments we all chose to adopt since the economic crisis, from the newer EU members to the old. The sad thing is that we resolved to those choices when our pockets were hurt, however we disturbingly opted to vent our anger and frustration once again towards migrants and in addition, to turn against our greatest political achievement of the past decades; the EU.
Admittedly, it is hard to have all countries of Europe agree on something. They have different economies, mentalities, cultures and historical ‘baggage’, that even though they strive for the same thing, they squabble. Take immigration for example. One would have thought, that while having established freedom of movement and a market economy which every political elite on the continent reveres and defends, immigration especially within the EU would not have caused such ripples. Our economic model needs immigrants, so unless we chose to radically change it and alter our social template, we must accept that immigration is here to stay. We cannot have the welfare benefits we enjoy, without someone working and paying for them.
Of course, there must be a distinction between migrants and refugees, the second causing such a terror in Europe lately, that people would happily prefer to give up their freedoms and privileges as EU nationals in order to keep them out. Not that the arrival of so many people outside or from Europe in such a short time does not pose serious challenges and problems or is only our problem to tackle. But for most, it is the least we can do until their countries are liveable again.
With people escaping from war torn regions, economic migrants and others who see our continent as a land of promise and opportunity come naturally as well, just as many of our ancestors saw other continents in the past. They are the ones that are most unwanted. Understandably, native Europeans fear the drastic change that a large number of newcomers bring, especially when politicians fail to explain to them the conditions these people live and work in, the benefits they bring and of course, how many enter but also are repatriated or deported.
With a single market and freedom of movement long established, Europe should by now have a common immigration policy and consensus when dealing with such crises and challenges. However, the EU is comprised by states with a very different view on citizenship, nationality and immigration laws that have formed through very different paths in history. The Western part had for centuries colonized other continents, resulting in vast, multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires. To them, citizenship and national identity is more tolerant of multiculturalism, because their elites had to convince their subjects that they share a common identity, in order to justify their rule over such a mosaic of peoples. In addition, they enjoyed economic growth and wealth far earlier, and as such, experienced immigration into their countries since the ‘50s in some cases; enough time to develop a new sense of ethnic identity and citizenship, or at least get used to migrants.
Contrary to them, many Eastern and Central new EU member states have a more nation-oriented sense of citizenship, as they were not as exposed to multiculturalism for as long as their western peers. So, when they were faced with such societal alterations such as inward immigration and dealing with refugees, understandably there was fear and scepticism. This is something that local populists exploited, and they used the failures of Western Europe as an example, in order to help promote their xenophobic agenda. Because yes, even after so many decades of experiencing inward migration, the western European states haven’t in all cases achieved to manage immigration properly.
In a discussion with a Belgian national last year, we ended up talking about the state in the city of Brussels, in which large parts have turned into immigrant ghettos, an image that often is used by populists as an example of “what is to come”, if other countries fall under the “islamisation” of Europe. He explained some of the grave mistakes that the Belgian government have made, when out of guilt for their actions in their African colonies in the past, in combination with their need of labour force due to their nation’s industrialization, that they decided to attract many immigrants from their former colonies like Congo to live and work in Belgium. With them, others followed from countries like Morocco and the Belgians loosened their immigration laws in order to facilitate the enrichment of their country’s labour force, plus to compensate many from their former colonies.
When their economy and industries changed and they clearly did not need as many immigrants, the establishment found it hard to touch the sensitive matter of immigration, out of complex and guilt, or simply out fear of being branded racists. As Brussels is divided in different districts and jurisdictions and Belgium is itself in two major language-based authorities, the immigration issue soon became a matter that was passed on from one authority to the other like a hot potato. In the end, nobody took responsibility for it, so any efforts for integrating or controlling the number entering the country was left to be run by old laws and an outdated approach.
Thus, we have today not just Brussels, but many other western European capitals and large cities, faced with the same problem and that is something that others use as an example to refuse to open their borders to refugees; breaking the ranks with their European partners and exposing the EU’s inability to promote solidarity among its members on such issue. In the western part of Europe too, immigration has become a hot topic, one of the main reasons – or excuses – for Brexit, the rise of the far right in France, populist government in Italy and terrorism in Norway in the face of Anders Breivik.
These incidents express Europe’s identity crisis, but also the failures of our governments which are the real cause of the problem and not immigration itself or the free movement.
Although everyone benefits from them, in dire times it is easier to blame Eastern European workers for unemployment and the loss of jobs, even though in recent years, large numbers are returning to their economically booming homelands. Under the current social and economic model we adopted, non-EU immigrants as necessary to maintain our social security, growth and investments. Yet we are finding it difficult to integrate many and once job became scarce, out of guilt and complex we do not encourage them to return to their home countries or seek new opportunities to other EU member states. They are forced to live in poverty-stricken ghettos, with less opportunities than the rest and naturally, wherever there is poverty and exclusion, come institutionalisation and radicalisation. The native population is confused, as they fear they are losing their identity and control over their communities and societies. In addition, when their governments fail to secure them jobs, they become desperate or angry and rightly so. However, they also often oppose necessary reforms, in order to maintain benefits and privileges that are not in sync with the modern reality.
Thus, consequently and out of desperation they want to return to what they know best: the nation state that raised them comfortably. European countries have shown two trends when dealing with the refugee crisis, some like Sweden and Germany accepted many people in, while others like Hungary are trying hard to keep as many out. It remains to be seen how well the first two countries can integrate their new arrivals on their own and not conduct the mistakes of Belgium, or for how long Hungary can have the tolerance of their European partners.
Europe needs strong leadership right now and an EU that will convince its members to agree to a common immigration policy that will heal these divisions and correct the mistakes conducted by the national governments in the past. A policy that will complement the freedom of movement and allow people from within, but also outside the EU, to be able to contribute with their knowledge and expertise, move freely in the block and enrich their own skills.
We could decide on the educational background of the immigrants we would like to attract, just like Canada and Australia are doing or perhaps we could even open immigration centres in the regions of the migrants’ origin, instead of allowing them to enter illegally in Europe. The list of what we could do to streamline Europe’s immigration policy is long, however all is blocked by national governments who wish to maintain control over this issue; but in most cases it is them who are failing.
Sharing responsibility and resources, could be the solution and the answer to the immigration question, which has become so prominent in our continent recently. Yet we are a long way in accepting this reality and thus, we prolong the problem with a negative impact on everyone individually, but above all the future of European unity and integration.