Archive for July, 2011

Relax: it’s not all under control

The Danes are jumpy about immigration from North Africa. The Germans and Austrians worry about Polish plumbers. The French are dead set against Romania joining the EU’s Schengen Area. The headlines may be exaggerated, but one thing is certain: the merest hint that immigration is not under rigid control makes Europeans nervous.

Recent developments in Denmark show why. Membership of the EU’s passport-free travel area means individual governments can’t control migration in the same way as they used to, but there’s a good reason – the Schengen Area is a cornerstone of the EU’s prosperity and political cohesion.

Denmark’s failure to explain and defend this trade-off to the public is just one of a long line of missed opportunities by EU governments. The EU-27 are liberal democracies boasting strong, outward-looking economies. The fact that they cannot bring migration under complete control should actually be a source of confidence and pride.

And yet, no European government says this. For years EU immigration policy has instead been consumed by the task of overcoming the obstacles to migration control, to the extent that the bloc’s core values have been eroded. By rather punitive means, the EU has sidelined all those who might compromise it.

Its carrier sanctions punish transport firms which unwittingly help illegal immigrants into the EU. Its employer sanctions will discipline businesses that hire irregular immigrants. Its foreign policies have been used to cajole third countries into signing agreements on illegal immigration.

The results have hardly been salutary. NGOs, firms and third countries have felt bullied, leading to implementation-gaps and an absence of voices to explain the inevitable failures of policy.

Fortunately, the EU is moving away from this approach. Rather than pushing firms, businesses, NGOs and other countries into implementing migration policies to which they are almost wholly opposed, the EU has discovered the idea of “partnership”:  the Union is trying to increase its control over migration by forming consensual alliances with other actors.

Through so-called mobility partnerships, for example, the EU and third countries are developing a common approach to shared migration challenges. The EU is also building partnerships with migrants themselves – prospective immigrants will be given greater opportunities to enter the EU legally so long as they commit to leave again after a limited time.

But such partnerships bring their own risks. This new approach is based on much the same aspiration for control as the last one. And even though the EU is now working in happy tandem with other actors, this aspiration remains just as unreachable. The migrants with whom it has partnerships might, for example, wish to stay in the EU longer than foreseen. Partner countries may elect new governments with a very different idea of the national interest.

As its new friends turn out to be less reliable than it had hoped, the EU will find itself drawn to those few partners who can actually deliver what they promise. Such relationships are usually unhealthy – either because the favoured partners gain too much influence, or because their reliability is sustained by some unsavoury traits. 

The EU seemed, for example, to be moving towards something of a partnership with Libya before recent events intervened. A cautionary tale: Libya’s reliability as a partner in dealing with illegal migration was based on some distinctly authoritarian traits. And through this relationship, Libya was able to gain leverage over the EU, threatening to unleash a wave of uncontrolled migration on Europe should things not go its way.

Such dilemmas are not restricted to migration policy. The EU finds itself knee-deep in a whole series of efforts to show voters it has things under control – from its financial stability to global economic competition. So far it has rightly and successfully concentrated on increasing its capacity for action. But the even trickier challenge will be to make EU citizens at ease with the fact that this capacity is finite. This will require the EU to involve its citizens more actively in policy and reduce their feelings of helplessness.

If it ducks this challenge, the EU risks falling into real difficulty. Just look at the current political turmoil in the UK. There, successive governments formed relationships with actors who, variously, promised them control over the economy (the banks), communication (the Murdoch press) and the world outside (the US). These relationships have all begun to crumble, but not before the government had seriously compromised itself.

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Exit: the EU’s unfortunate taboo

When the EU was founded, its treaties were declared valid for an unlimited period. The desire to make European integration permanent and irreversible helps explain why the bloc’s founders did not create a proper procedure for member states to leave. Leaving was supposed to become unthinkable: in the course of integration, states would be broken down, and a new entity – perhaps a Europe of interdependent regions – would take their place.

Today, this kind of talk has dried up. With the EU lurching from crisis to crisis, one thing has become clear: European integration will continue for an “unlimited period” only in the sense that there is no firm date for its expiry. Far from being broken down, the member states are showing their vitality by obstructing further cooperation. And the question about how to leave the Eurozone, the Schengen Area, the EU itself, is becoming almost mainstream.

The reasons for all this talk about withdrawal are not hard to identify. Faced with international competition from tricky characters like China and Russia, the publics of big member states in particular wonder why they belong to an organisation that seems geared towards reducing their room for manoeuvre. A series of poorly thought out political projects has only stretched their patience.

Yet, the big members are not the only ones talked of as candidates for leaving. Fired up by the idea of Europe of the regions, a number of the EU’s sub-national areas aspire to “independence in Europe” – independence from the mother-state, under the protective umbrella of EU membership. Funnily enough though, if a region were actually to attain independence it might well have to leave the EU.

It is a vexed point, but legal wonks suggest that EU membership would not automatically extend to a newly-independent country. The existing EU members could well insist on it withdrawing, if only to make it apply for re-entry. After all, many EU members have separatist movements of their own to contend with, and would be terrified of “independence in Europe” becoming the norm.

Commentators have been warning of such developments for years; but they have largely missed the irony: had the EU faced up earlier to the possibility of member states leaving, it could actually have nurtured integration. This is because a withdrawal clause can be a boon to cooperation. A well-formulated withdrawal clause can reduce the incidence of withdrawal.

If there is clarity about the rights and duties entailed by leaving, for example, governments are forced into a more active commitment to cooperation. They can’t pretend to their voters that they are trapped in an arrangement against their will (as most Eurozone capitals seem to do these days). And they cannot petulantly threaten withdrawal (as Italy did in response to the recent Schengen crisis).

Moreover, clarity about how to leave a union can give governments the leverage they need to block excessive centralisation, to avoid marginalization in the negotiations that matter to them most, as well as to prevent serial exploitation at the hands of their partners. Such problems are at the root of the EU’s current crises.

It is unfortunate therefore that, insofar as the bloc has dared formulate exit rules, it has viewed these as a liability rather than a boon: the EU prays the exit rules will never be used, rather than drawing them up in such a way that they never have to be. It is no surprise that Article 50, the general withdrawal clause included in the Lisbon Treaty, manages to leave the two key questions open: how would a withdrawal procedure work and what status would a country enjoy after it had left?

As a result, Article 50 strengthens big member states by giving them the power to bully their way out of the EU. And it allows all member states to interfere in one another’s internal affairs and to threaten breakaway regions with EU exclusion if they dare move towards independence.

This is a sour end for the old dream of Europe of the regions. But it is the logical outcome for a mode of cooperation which has too often preferred wishful thinking to imaginatively exploiting tricky realities.

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