For decades, Europe has been a dream destination for many immigrants in search of a better life. As a symbol of democracy, stability and opportunity, the old continent attracts more and more people every year. But an escalating migration crisis is testing the European Union’s (EU) commitment to human rights and open borders. The current geopolitical situation in several regions bordering Europe has been boosting the immigration stream, leading to new debates concerning immigration policy and regulations as well as to an intensification of nationalist and right-wing movements in many European countries. Before delving deeper into the consequences of this massive immigration, let’s analyze the roots and the reasons of this immigration wave that is afflicting the EU.
Europe’s history has been immensely shaped by migration. For centuries, merchants, craftsmen, and intellectuals crossed the continent to practice their trades or start new lives. Millions migrated from Europe, first to the colonies and later to the Americas. At the same time, Europe also has a long history of forced migration: from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to the population shifts in southeast Europe caused by the many wars between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Large-scale immigration into western Europe has been more recent. From 1960 to 1973, the number of foreign workers in western Europe doubled from 3% to 6% of the workforce. It was the highest in places like the UK and France, with relatively open access for citizens of their former colonies. In Germany, too, the number of foreigners (nearly half of them Turks) rose by 4 million between 1960 and 1985, although they seldom became citizens. But primary immigration into Europe—driven by labor needs—all but ended with the oil crisis of 1973. Since the late 1980s, the number of people applying for asylum has increased sharply. In 1984, there were only 104,000 applications in western Europe. This figure grew to 692,000 in 1992 and then declined again during the 1990s.
Thus, asylum has become one of the principal means of immigration into the EU. The end of the Cold War caused a number of small wars and ethnic conflicts around the world. In this type of warfare, the combatants—regular troops complemented by paramilitaries—often target civilian populations. Many people that applied for asylum were from Bosnia in the early 1990s and Kosovo in the late 1990s. Also, with the end of communist rule, many eastern Europeans believed that their aspirations for a better life could only be served in the west.Therefore, it’s not surprising that many tried to emigrate westward. The problem is that tens of thousands have tried to use the asylum process to do so, which has led to backlash in some countries against all types of immigrants. Even Ireland, whose modern history is one of mass emigration, saw asylum applications leap from 39 in 1992 to more than 4,600 in 1998. Some countries have experienced much larger increases than others. Germany has consistently received more refugees than other EU countries—more than 60% of all those who applied for asylum in western Europe in 1992. During the last decade, Austria, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland have received high numbers of refugees per head of their populations, whereas some of the larger states, especially France, Italy and Spain, have received relatively fewer. Britain is in the middle of the field.
Today, Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of immigrants and refugees in its history. To understand the situation the EU is facing today, it is essential to clarify the reality that Europeans had to endure during most of 2015. What made the situation in 2015 evolve differently from the past was the scale of the new immigration wave that appeared during the spring, added to the political motivation of immigrants who were mainly escaping civil conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Composed mostly of refugees moving out of Syria and Iraq under the pressure of endless fighting in these two countries, this influx of immigrants introduced numbers never seen in recent years, with 800,000 people stepping onto European territory in less than eight months, or 6,000 per day. By the end of 2015 a new route was paved through Turkey, Greece, and the Western Balkan countries toward EU nations, starting with Hungary, Austria, and Germany and then spreading to many more countries. The sudden surge of immigration in the EU took the European institutions by surprise. Close monitoring of the Syrian crisis from 2011 on revealed that the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) stemming from the Syrian conflict at the start of 2015 amounted to nearly half of the Syrian population (approximately 4 million refugees and almost 8 million IDPs).
For the first few months of 2015, this level of immigration pressure the EU had to confront was rather traditional. Europeans were profoundly confused about how to respond to these new challenges. In the age of imperialism, Europe justified settling foreign lands with the confident belief that they were bringing the benefits of civilization to more backward parts of the world. But post-imperial, post-Holocaust Europe is much more wary of asserting the superiority of its culture. The big question in the coming decades is how Europe
For the first time, the EU had to find a collective response to this crisis because of its scale, intensity, and the involvement of many countries along the route followed by the immigrants. Europe’s response was essentially shaped by a sense of urgency. It was a short-term fix that allowed the EU to regain control of its external borders. An agreement with Turkey set up practical arrangements that contributed to calming the situation on the ground and updating processes for asylum applications and returns. However, deep-seated political divisions in the Union on the immigration issue remain. In particular, not all member states are ready to accept a fair share of the immigration burden, thereby undermining the principle of unity, and risking fragmentation and freedom of movement.
Detailed decisions presented in the European Council conclusions of February 18, March 7, and March 18, 2016, focused on three main issues. First, the EU gave clear support, including financial resources and expertise, to the frontline states, in particular Greece, to help deliver humanitarian assistance to the refugees and facilitate the different stages of the administrative processes required by the EU for border control and asylum requests. This action consisted of first setting up reception centers (“hot spots”) for the purpose of rapidly examining newly arrived immigrants, and selecting between those whose asylum requests could be processed and those who could go no further, and then establishing transit centers for possible candidates for asylum, or other types of international protection. Second, the EU rapidly established a new body of EU border and coast guard forces through relevant legislation. Third, the EU reached an agreement with Turkey that provided both sides with a clear understanding of their mutual obligations and rights with regard to the influx of refugees and immigrants moving into Europe, out of Turkey. Provisions were adopted both on the current immigrants, with the return to Turkey of irregular immigrants who had already landed in Greece, and on future inflow, with the possible resettlement in Europe of regular immigrants on the condition that their asylum applications be processed through procedures in Turkey. These procedures assisted Turkish authorities in stemming smuggling and trafficking channels. Moreover, significant improvements to Syrian refugees’ daily lives could be seen in Turkey, where they had access to the labor market, and education for refugee children in local schools. Meanwhile, EU leaders agreed to substantial compensation for Turkey’s efforts by allocating a €6 billion ($6.6 billion) financial package for 2016 and 2017, accelerated visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to Schengen countries, and the relaunch of Turkey’s stalled EU accession negotiations. Last but not least, from the Turkish point of view, the EU formally reinvigorated its strategic partnership with Ankara with a commitment to convene a yearly summit between the leaders of the two sides. What the EU urgently needs now is a more long-term plan based on a combination of genuine solidarity and creative flexibility. Solidarity is needed, immigration is not fatalistic; it can be controlled and can open the door to benefits for all. For this to happen, Europeans need to change their current thinking and consider immigration as an opportunity. They must agree to discuss the issue among themselves, promote dialogue with their external partners, and leave aside the temptations of intolerance and isolation. Flexibility is necessary as any decision on immigration must take into consideration the specific problems of every member state and, more substantially, facilitate the need for a progressive rollout of any integration approach.