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Immigration Policy

Migration Continues to Split Europe

September 05, 2019 | by JESS SMEE

The Hungarian border fence. Photo by Bör Benedek Photos via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Illegal immigration poses an ongoing political challenge for the European bloc and politicians’ failure to act has left Europeans reportedly more concerned about immigration than climate change. Will November's change of leadership in the European Commission help improve its track record on the humanitarian emergency?

Large numbers of migrants continued to arrive on European shores this summer and hundreds of people died en route so far this year. But while immigration dominates the headlines, Europe is divided on how to respond, meaning that the issue tops the to-do list for incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Pressure is rising on Europe to take a firm stance on the extended emergency. In August, Greece underscored its calls for the EU to share the burden of new arrivals amid a sharp increase in migrants landing on Greek islands in recent weeks. Deputy Minister for Citizen Protection Giorgios Koumoutsakos even warned that the country had “exhausted its capacity” to cope with the newcomers - and called on the rest of Europe for help.

And as well as loud complaints from the front-line nations, Europe is struggling to bridge increasingly polarized political positions on immigration. European member states are far from on the same page when it comes to their willingness to accept and accommodate migrants. Illustrating the cleft between political responses to the crises, the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2018 survey on integration, probed the question: How effectively do policies support the integration of migrants into society? Its findings are telling. In total 11 countries from the bloc are said to pursue cultural, education and social policies which “do not focus on integrating migrants into society,” and five Eastern European nations - Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria - even scored just 3 out of a possible 10 points. Among the better performers, 17 European countries scored between 6 and 8 points, but while seeking to integrate newcomers, they still “failed to do so effectively”, according to the survey.

Reforming the Dublin Agreement

Ahead of taking the reins of the European Commission in November, von der Leyen has said she supports reforming the EU's Dublin regulation, which rules that state asylum-seekers must file their applications in the first EU country they reach, more often than not, Greece, Italy and Spain.

In an interview with the German daily the Bild and other European newspapers, von der Leyen said it was time to reform the EU’s Dublin regulation, which was last amended in 2013: “Migration takes place by land or sea. We can only have stability on our external borders if we provide sufficient help to member states that are exposed to a lot of migration pressure because of their position on the map,” she said. 

A reshuffle in the European corridors of power - including the arrival of newly elected and re-elected members of parliament this summer - will also refocus Brussel’s attention on the humanitarian emergency. But this summer the rifts within the bloc have been made painfully clear, for example, with private rescue missions being refused safe entry by Italy and Malta as well as protracted wrangling over where to send each migrant on board.

Europeans increasingly worried, survey shows

A number of EU countries, including Germany, have outlined that they aim to introduce some changes to the bloc's migration policy. But lawmakers have had mixed success in hammering out changes. In June 2018 member states talked through a raft of measures to ease the burden, but despite their agreements, many of their plans are yet to see the light of day. Increasing the size and range of power of the EU’s external border agency FRONTEX was one of the goals. But without a clear time frame, progress towards this goal has spluttered. While the EU Commission has voiced plans to add another 8,500 personnel to FRONTEX by 2020, von der Leyen has mooted reaching this target by 2024 at the latest. 

But as inaction and division plagues the bloc, immigration has risen to the top of Europeans’ list of concerns, according to the European Commission's biannual Eurobarometer public opinion survey published in early August, showing the issue now provokes more fear among a sample of European citizens than climate change.

Meanwhile, polarization between European nation’s stances on immigration appears to be growing, suggesting that von der Leyen will have her work cut out to steer the European Commission towards compromise. According to information gathered as part of SGI’s 2019 survey, due for publication in the Autumn , there is an uptick in the number of the countries who failed to focus on the integration of immigrants. But at the same time countries such as Germany, Spain and Portugal managed to improve their treatment of newcomers.

This sends a worrying signal that Europe is moving in contrasting directions when it comes to this key test of its unity. And those in Brussels (and beyond) know that the political stakes are high. After all, failure to reform the bloc’s asylum system and to manage the crisis, will likely push increasingly numbers of voters towards far-right and populist parties.

Jess Smee is a Berlin-based journalist and editor of SGI News and the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI blog.

First published by EU Observer

Photo by Bör Benedeck Photo via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

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