Terra Incognita: The EU should have come up with a migration policy two decades ago

The problem is 30 years of inaction, ossified structures and unwillingness to take responsibility and manage social problems, and address the needs of average people and immigrants along the way.

A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece (REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece (REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
The German weekly Der Spiegel was outraged at the new politicians taking the reins in Italy. The cover of its June edition shows a fork with spaghetti with one of the strands in the shape of a noose. “Italy is destroying itself and dragging down Europe with it.”
This is the typical German EU-jingoism attacking anyone in the EU who is critical of the European Union. Another publication claimed that the “barbarians” are back at the gates of Rome, as the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord came to power.
A key feature of the new Italian government is that Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega Nord, will be interior minister. Salvini is criticized for vowing to “expel half a million illegal immigrants.”
Italy’s turn to this brand of euroskepticism has been a long time in the making. Umberto Bossi, founder of the League, said in 2013: “There’s no such thing as a state without borders; we can’t get rid of our borders.” But the real roots of Italy’s political upheaval lie in the 1990s, when the EU decided that it would ignore immigration as an essential issue affecting Europe.
Today, the ramifications of three decades of having no consistent immigration policy – which has largely meant basically having almost open borders, such that anyone who gets to an EU country can often end up staying somewhere in Europe – are that immigration is the main topic of almost every political season in every European country.
“Migration to play key role in upcoming Swedish elections,” Al Jazeera’s headline read in late May, for instance. A Brookings Institution report in March noted that the “center Left has been bleeding voters to the far Right for decades over immigration, the inadequate EU response to the refugee crises of 2015 has only accelerated the trend.”
Emblematic of the overall failure to address basic realities was the way Greece and the EU have responded to the continued refugee arrivals on Greek islands. In recent weeks Kurdish refugees were attacked by other refugees in the Moria camp on Lesvos, where thousands are crammed into a camp meant for one-third of their numbers. They live in terrible conditions and lack basic security, with the authorities treating the migrants like animals, assuming that if they can be hidden behind cages, then “out of sight, out of mind” will make the issue go away.
How did the hopes of the EU come to this? How is it possible so many countries and hundreds of millions of people spend every election obsessing over immigration rather than dealing with vital issues, such as the economy? Because immigration now affects so many aspects of these countries, from the economy to culture and security.
Ignoring the issue has made it get worse. This has been the European response to immigration since the 1990s.
I remember living in Italy during a study abroad program in Florence in 2002. New undocumented immigrants who couldn’t find work would walk into the restaurants, plop CDs on your table while you were eating, and aggressively demand you buy them. The flustered locals just looked away, pretending this was the new normal.
I went to Spain in 2004 where parks were full of migrants wandering around, nowhere to work or live. Prostitutes, underage girls lured to Europe from Africa, had taken over a street where my hostel was.
Over the years in Europe on various travels, I saw similar scenes in Paris, Berlin, the UK and elsewhere. The slow erosion of security, low levels of violence and lawlessness that seemed out of place. Seething, quiet anger by locals and newcomers.
Any discussion of these issues – such as wondering why is a public park now unsafe, why are there people sleeping there, why are certain neighborhoods seemingly becoming lawless – is met with a quiet encouragement not to say too much, lest one be considered “racist” for “opposing immigration.” But what if one isn’t being “racist,” but asking why the authorities have seemed to abandon parts of the country, why people tolerate in public spaces behavior they wouldn’t have a few years ago?
It’s not by chance that immigration became the No. 1 issue in all these countries. It is because almost every single government across the continent thought that bourgeois post-Cold War sensibilities and neoliberalism could solve everything. They labeled everyone discussing immigration, when such discussions were much smaller, as crackpots, extreme rightists. This was mostly because the old parties of Europe, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, the Liberals and Conservatives, had a convivencia of power-swapping. Years of peace changed the political landscape, and it was expected that borders would be reduced and a common currency would lead to common values. The nation-state was an anachronism, said intellectuals like Tony Judt. Growing inequality, unemployment, and the social distance between leaders and governed crept in quietly, without major media noticing it.
The refugee crises of 2015 was emblematic of what had gone on for years. I went to Eastern Europe to cover the crisis. I watched as police in Greece lined up migrants and sent them into Macedonia across an undocumented border crossing. No security checks, no fingerprints, no IDs. Just “go across.” No attempt to monitor or organize anything, just get them to go north. And in Macedonia the buses waited to take them to Serbia for another crossing without documentation. From there I went with the refugees to Hungary, until Hungary put up barbed wire and closed the border. And media said Hungary was the “extreme right-wing, racist” country for doing so.
But what if the resources of the EU, the billions it eventually spent to encourage Turkey to keep refugees in Turkey, had been spent standardizing the process of immigration? What if every immigrant arriving had his information taken down, a fingerprint or biometric scan, using modern technology, and then was given housing in a large and modern refugee camp? What if the clean facilities had proper security inside and job training and education and all the things that people want? And what if immigrants could have learned the language of the country they wanted to move to and have had help filling out applications, and a whole process for them to give them dignity and to give authorities the ability to see who was coming and prepare them to integrate into the new society? You know, a bit like Ellis Island in 1900. How is it possible that what the US could do in 1900, the EU couldn’t do 10% of that level of organization in 2015? How does it benefit immigrants or host countries to have people crossing borders by the hundreds of thousands without documents? Why not issue them documents on arrival, so you have a record of where someone is, where he went, what his status is? Resources spent on arrival to help them could save huge investments later.
The narrative today in some European countries is still to scoff at the “populism.” Der Spiegel calls the Italian leaders a form of “Trumpism.” They attack Italy as a “threat” to the EU. But how can everything be a threat, whether it is the Eastern European nationalists or the rightist voters, or euroskeptics or the far Left, or the populists, or the extremist terrorists, with the EU never having to answer for what it has not done?
The problem in Europe is 30 years of power structures not taking responsibility, passing the buck from one country to another, hoping “someone else” would absorb migrants. Look at the “jungle” in Calais, where France surrendered a whole area to people jumping on trucks to get to the UK. How can a wealthy country do that? How can it not take responsibility, organize the people? If they want to apply to move to the UK, aid them in doing so. The authorities let a “jungle” grow up in their midst because they didn’t want to take responsibility. And then they wonder, why is there populism? Because when you ignore the vast majority of the people, including the immigrants, you get populism.
“Populism” is the name given to what happens when average people are angry. It takes them years to get angry, years of abandonment and no one listening to their concerns, or being dismissed as crazy bigots. For some reason EU officials are good at understanding the difference between “hard-liners” and “moderates” in Iran, but they can’t seem to understand why lack of listening to average people in their own country might lead to “hard-liners” emerging. Aren’t Le Pen, Wilders, Brexit, Sweden Democrats and all the other new parties just “hard-liners”?
The EU is hampered because of its institutional nature. But at its heart is a class of decaying politicians whose views were formed in the 1980s, and who were unprepared for the challenges of the post-9/11 world and did not take responsibility for their countries. Whether it is the thousands of European-born citizens who went to join ISIS, or the continued tragedy of the Moria camp on Lesvos, the leadership has continued to not take seriously the continent’s troubles.
Italy is not the problem. The problem is 30 years of inaction, ossified structures and unwillingness to take responsibility and manage social problems, and address the needs of average people and immigrants along the way.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman