Archive for June, 2011

Is this a budget-proposal worth fighting over?

The European Commission has just presented its proposal for a new “multi-annual financial framework”. An “MFF” may not sound like much, yet the instrument hiding behind this harmless acronym is a mighty one – a legally binding agreement setting out the EU’s budgetary framework for the years 2014-2020. It will cover around one trillion Euros.

The MFF-proposal thus amounts to the Commission’s vision for the future. The EU’s executive might have chosen almost anything for its theme – from “solidarity” to “crisis management” – but it has plumped for “economic growth”. Given the confusion about what the EU’s existing agenda for growth and competitiveness actually entails, the MFF offers the Commission an opportunity to reinvigorate its efforts.

No bad thing. EU immigration policy is indicative of a whole range of policy areas that could do with a blast from this direction. Too long locked in a rather esoteric debate about “rights” and “security”, the EU’s current immigration policy fails to exploit the contribution that immigrants can make to Europe’s economic growth. Active budgeting could foster a more open stance to workers from abroad, as well as boosting policies that encourage EU citizens to work in other member states.

Yet, it will be tempting for the Commission to avoid such issues during the MFF-negotiations. Getting bogged down in debates about migration would disrupt its own narrow agenda for the budget. The Commission would above all like the EU to have greater powers to raise its own finances in order to end its financial dependence upon member governments who only care about getting their “fair share”. From this perspective, it would be easier for the Commission simply to name-check the crowd-pleaser “economic growth” and focus its real attentions on its own narrow budgetary politics.

Happily, the proposal’s migration-related priorities suggest that the Commission will take the bull by the horns, actively using the MFF to shake up immigration and other stagnant policy areas. Two of the MFF-proposal’s priorities – the better management of the EU’s external borders and the improvement of social integration – have for example long been identified as prerequisites for a more dynamic immigration policy. And the MFF-proposal’s headline effort to improve cross-border transport through a “connecting Europe facility” would enhance labour mobility throughout the EU at a time when many member states are rethinking their commitment to passport-free travel.

Yet, this choice of priorities may turn out to have less to do with the proposal’s nominal goal of boosting growth and more to do with political expedience: Financial support for the protection of external borders may simply be aimed at placating peripheral southern and eastern member states. The cash allotted to immigrant integration may just be a sop to rich northern states. And by creating projects such as “connecting Europe” with a strong cross-border element the Commission may simply be making it harder for member states to calculate how much they are benefiting from the budget, thus slyly undermining their ability to demand their “fair share”.

There’s a strong case to be made for the EU-27 to pursue goals like economic growth and competitiveness together. There’s good reason to argue that the EU-27 won’t achieve those goals if member governments keep focusing on their just returns from the budget. There’s a rather world-weary argument in favour of allowing the EU to raise more of its own finances in order to overcome that deadlock. And there’s probably even a case to be made for raising this cash through a tax on financial transactions. Will the Commission make that case?

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Schengen reform: a bluffer’s guide

With the reform of the EU’s passport-free travel area under discussion in the European Council today, here is a bluffer’s guide to interpreting developments. 

Why did the system collapse during the Arab springtime?

It’s a bit of a puzzle: in the 1990s, Schengen states managed to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants. Since then, they have adopted measures to deal with such challenges together, introducing tools to help one another with border control and with mass influxes of refugees (Frontex, the common borders agency; 2001’s temporary protection directive). Moreover, the Schengen Area now includes 25 members. Yet, last month, the system collapsed at the sight of just 25,000 Tunisians.

Why has this bigger, apparently more integrated bloc stumbled over such a small number of immigrants from North Africa? It is tempting to put it down to racism – to the idea that the EU can deal with white immigrants from, say, the Balkans but not with North Africans. The reality is more prosaic. The arrival of the 25,000 highlighted a simple fact: the Schengen states have so far only pretended to work together to meet common challenges. With the gradual enlargement of the Schengen Area to 25, the bloc has actually undergone disintegration rather than integration.

Take, for example, the move in 2004 to drop the rule that common policies on borders, asylum and immigration must be adopted by unanimity. This shift to supranationalism is often taken as a sign of the governments’ deepening integration on Schengen-related matters. Actually, the reverse is closer to the truth: it shows how member governments can bypass the lack of agreement between them and adopt policies without an active consensus. This means that the bloc has indeed adopted common rules, but they tend to be loose and poorly formulated.

What reforms are needed to strengthen Schengen?

The Arab Spring highlighted the weakness of this setup. Faced with an influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers from Tunisia, southern EU states could not force their northern partners to help them. For their part, northern EU states wanted southerners to improve their own border standards and asylum capacities so they could deal with the problems themselves, but again the rules were not strong enough to force this. With each side frustrated, trust broke down and unilateralism broke out.

To prevent this becoming a regular occurrence, the Schengen bloc needs to introduce a stronger system – one that allows southerners to gain reliable help from northerners whilst increasing northerners’ scope to make southerners raise their standards. Southerners would thus have to agree to the current plans for greater supervision (stronger Schengen evaluation mechanism; more robust standards on the ‘second wave’ of asylum standards). And northerners would have to agree to provide border resources on a general basis (boost Frontex’s power to call upon national resources) as well as to take in refugees in case of a crisis ( for example via a proper EU asylum resettlement scheme).

But it is still unclear whether the current crisis has overcome the old obstacles to this kind of quid-pro-quo between North and South. Predictably enough, southerners have been resistant to the plans for greater supervision and northerners have been critical of stricter rules on solidarity. Moreover southerners themselves are in no hurry to sign up to tough rules on solidarity – they like to receive help, but they are not so enthusiastic to provide it. And northerners are keen on supervision mechanisms to deal with tricky southerners, but simply can’t face the idea of being supervised themselves.

Does it matter if the reforms fall short?

There have already been headlines such as “Frontex strengthened ahead of summit”,  suggesting success is possible. Yet,  it is crucial to ask in what way Frontex has been strengthened. In the past, the Schengen states have boosted the Commission and the EU agencies (the new Asylum Support Office; Frontex) precisely because there was no agreement between them. Giving centralized bodies the power to act on their behalf was easier than actually working together. If the member states simply boost Frontex’s capacity to act independently of them – to build up and deploy its own border resources – they may strengthen the agency but not necessarily the passport-free area.

The key task, then, is for the European Council to achieve an active intergovernmental consensus around slippery values such as “solidarity”, “trust” and “mutual responsibility”. Since these values are relative, this is best done through precisely the kind of political wrangling we have seen over the past weeks. Such wrangling gives each state a feel for the others’ problems and capacities. But if the member states today short-circuit this process and simply empower EU bodies to act for them, it will be hard to maintain trust and cooperation between them when a crisis breaks out. With new rules on the table permitting the reintroduction of national controls, this could be a fatal flaw.

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Solidarity and trust are in short supply, thankfully

35 years ago, an EU struggling with a difficult enlargement (Denmark, Ireland, UK) was plunged into economic recession. Officials watched nervously as the EU’s approval-ratings dipped. According to opinion polls of the time, citizens were increasingly sceptical about whether their country was really benefiting from EU membership.

Despite this, officials found reason to be cheerful: the same polls revealed a growing sense of solidarity and trust between the citizens of the different member countries. Asked whether they supported the idea of helping out another member state in economic difficulty, more and more citizens replied in the affirmative. The figures couldn’t really have been much higher.

In the UK, support for the idea of showing solidarity with other member states rose from 59% in 1973 to 77% in 1976. In Germany, the figure was 72% even after the country had provided economic aid to Italy. And Europe-wide, citizens were developing a sense of trust in one another too: the same citizens who had been sceptical about the immediate benefits of EU membership believed that binding their country to the other members would pay off in the medium term.

By the end of the decade, analysts were predicting a rosy future for the EU. They felt that popular trust and solidarity were the inevitable result of cosmopolitan education and the increasing europeanisation of the public – they would thus grow and grow. Today such predictions have proved wide of the mark. As the EU comes to terms with the most recent round of enlargement and the latest economic crisis, all sense of solidarity and trust between member states has evaporated. Governments are refusing to support each other unconditionally and are seeking new means to supervise one another.

But is this a bad thing? After all, values such as solidarity and trust are usually – and indeed rightly ought to be – reserved for those about whom we care least. We unhesitatingly donate money to some unknown victim of a natural disaster on the other side of the world and are happy to trust that this cash will be well spent: it really has no implications for us if it is not. But to be generous or trusting towards those actually connected with us is either lazy or timid.

It’s the reason why successful, close-knit communities are so full of mistrustful, nosey, uncharitable people. Members of a successful community are prepared to interfere in the affairs of their neighbours, to demand things in return for a show of support. They know that a community whose members tiptoe around one another will not survive for long. The same is true of the EU.

If this is so, it raises the question why so many EU officials and commentators are currently bemoaning the lack of trust and solidarity in the bloc. Why would they lament the death of values based on complacence and a disinterest in one’s neighbours? The answer, most probably, is that life is smoother when neighbours do not interfere in one another’s affairs. Take the Schengen Area, the EU’s passport-free travel zone. Its member governments have long found in the values of trust and solidarity a useful means of bypassing the tougher aspects of cooperation.

The governments of the founding Schengen states – Benelux, France and Germany – were the first to embrace “solidarity” and “mutual trust”, in the 1980s. Suddenly finding themselves interdependent on highly sensitive issues of crime and immigration, they were desperate to retain a high degree of national autonomy. “Trusting” one another was a small price to pay for being left in peace, so too was showing “solidarity” and individually regulating their home affairs in what they deemed to be the European interest.

Many of the states which have subsequently joined the Schengen Area have also been keen on trust and solidarity. With successive enlargements, the external borders of the passport-free zone came ever closer to problem areas in North Africa and Eastern Europe whilst seeing countries join which have more limited experience with issues of immigration. These states have embraced “solidarity” and “trust” as a means to leverage support and resources without giving others a say about how they regulate their own affairs.

The end of trust and solidarity is thus really an end to autonomy. Each member state is now having to face up to the fact that its desire for autonomy has only prevented it from interfering in the affairs of its partners. This is a community being shaken out of complacence.

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The EU has a vice: coherence

The EU has a vice. On the backstreets of Brussels, out of sight from innocent publics, exotic new institutional contraptions are being erected, policy competencies are slipped between sweaty palms, deviant-sounding concepts are developed, all in pursuit of one seedy perversion: coherence. Officials here are simply obsessed with ensuring coherence between the EU’s many bitty policies and powers.

If the intersection between home and foreign affairs has emerged as a hotbed for this particular form of naughtiness, it is because the two topics throw up tricky problems for one another. Failures of foreign policy can create internal security threats for the EU, as shown by the current upheavals in North Africa, and ill-conceived home-affairs policies can be a considerable source of tension in foreign relations. Great effort has therefore been focussed on integrating the two policy fields.

Visa liberalisation is one example. Much in the news following the Arab Spring, this approach aims to combine an improvement of the EU’s foreign relations with an alleviation of immigration pressures. EU rules on short-stay visas – and in some cases on labour immigration – are liberalised for select countries in a bid to improve relations thanks to an increase in business links and “people-to-people” contact. And the resulting economic and political development is then supposed to remove the “push factors” of migration.

The EU’s “root-causes” agenda is a second prong of the efforts to enhance coherence. It uses EU development aid to combat the economic and political causes of cross-national threats. This approach was initiated for migration in the 1990s and has more recently been applied to terrorism. It marries concern for global political and economic development with the EU’s narrow security interests.

Coherence as policy-pilfering

Such moves towards coherence look perfectly innocent on paper of course. In practice, however, they have a dark undertone. Too often they are fuelled by greed and envy: it is usually those EU officials with the fewest powers and competencies who are keenest on ensuring coherence. They cite it in order to borrow their colleagues’ policies and resources rather than develop their own.

In the root-causes approach, for example, home-affairs officials borrow from development policy instead of committing their own resources to the problems in third countries. Their focus is those areas with ambitious, mobile populations or terrorist potential. It is often the world’s middle-income countries which fit that particular bill, meaning that development aid may be diverted away from pressing problems in poorer countries.

In the form of visa liberalisation, meanwhile, it is the turn of foreign-policy wonks. Their pilfering from the EU’s home-affairs toolbox can come at the cost of the integrity of the EU’s immigration controls. Visa liberalisation has of course occurred only after third countries have introduced extensive policies to control migration and crime of their own. But EU home-affairs officials do not like to outsource such functions to third countries without leaving themselves some margin of manoeuvre. Lifting visa controls on a permanent basis leaves them feeling naked.

A shortcut to nowhere

These efforts also have a tendency to backfire on the pilferers themselves. The “root-causes approach” may for example have the opposite effect to that intended by nimble-fingered home-affairs officials. Far from reducing irregular immigration, it can cause a “migration hump”. It encourages individuals in third countries to become economically active and mobile, thus inducing a rise in uncontrolled migration as well as a strong antipathy against the EU should the bloc try to scotch it.

Similarly, foreign-policy goals have not always been well served by visa liberalisation. In the wake of liberalisation efforts towards the Balkans, EU interior ministries have become panicky and have threatened to reintroduce visa controls. This leaves the Union trying to leverage permanent reforms in third countries through incentives that look entirely wobbly. Relations with the region are looking decidedly strained.

In all this, there is a basic principle which the Union does not appear to respect: the bloc can only achieve coherence between its foreign and home affairs policies when it actually has a home affairs and a foreign policy. Creating synergies between two underdeveloped policy areas is a shortcut to nowhere. For as long as officials prefer to pilfer from one another instead of building up their own policies, the EU will find itself unable to pursue either its foreign or its home affairs.

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