More than a million requests for asylum; dozens of boats landing daily on Greek and Maltese beaches; a record number of deaths in the Mediterranean; armies sent in to control borders — migration in 2015 was exceptional in scale, and has challenged how the EU functions. Between August and October, Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all reintroduced border controls to try to stem the influx.
France has done likewise since the 13 November attacks in Paris; some of its politicians believe that the Schengen agreement, which guarantees the free movement of people, was a cause of the carnage. “Schengen is dead,” said Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the Republicans (as the UMP renamed itself in 2015). “The absence of national borders is criminal folly,” said Marine Le Pen of the Front National; Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of Debout la France (France Arise) demanded “the reintroduction of our national borders to stop jihadists getting in.” France’s socialist prime minister Manuel Valls thinks that “if Europe doesn’t assume its responsibility, the whole Schengen area will be called into question” (1).
Events last year raised collective awareness of the gravity of the situation — the discovery of 71 decomposing bodies in a lorry in Austria; the body of a Syrian child washed ashore, like many others, on a Turkish beach. Politicians angrily blamed traffickers. The French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced a “merciless fight against the networks of human traffickers” and his German counterpart Thomas de Maizière promised to “fight the criminal gangs […] who make a business out of human misery.” The “traffickers” are ideal culprits, but they are simply profiting from the gap between legal means of immigration into Europe and the many people who want to enter, especially from the Middle East and Africa.
EU borders are not unilaterally closed to immigrants. In 2013 the EU’s 28 member states allowed 1.5 million people from outside the EU to enter legally. Each state sets its own limits, taking into account its economic and demographic situation, and the political complexion of its government. In France, 209,782 requests to stay were granted in 2014, to students, qualified workers, seasonal employees, family members of existing residents and refugees — just 13,000 more than in 2010.
Yet several countries in the Middle East and Africa are engaged in civil wars, and millions have fled. As they are unable to obtain legal visas, some enter the EU illegally, hiding in lorries, finding accommodation wherever they can, crossing the Mediterranean clandestinely, obtaining false documents, bribing corrupt officials. All this requires the involvement of organised networks.
Over the past 25 years, the EU has toughened measures to stop illegal immigrant, with a shared database for European police forces (the Schengen Information System), fingerprint records (since 2000) and Frontex, an agency established in 2005 that patrols the EU’s external borders with helicopters, drones, military vessels, night-vision equipment and heartbeat-detectors. According to estimates by The Migrant Files (2), illegal immigration into Europe since 2000 has generated at least €16bn for trafficking networks. In 14 years, member states have spent €11bn expelling people without documents and €2bn strengthening the EU’s 14,000-km external border.
These figures are dwarfed by US expenditure: $18bn a year mostly for guarding its border with Mexico, with a 5m-high fence, 1,800 watchtowers and 20,000 personnel, one for every 150 metres of border. Political scientist Peter Andreas has shown that the US’s enhanced border control has increased the cost and duration of migrants’ journeys, the price of false passports and sums to bribe officials. This has worsened the criminalisation of the trafficking networks, which have gradually merged with drug networks (3). But the US’s quasi-military measures have not deterred migrants; their motivation stems from the situation in their native countries, and every year 300-400,000 cross the US border illegally.
Wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan have produced a flow of refugees that has grown as the conflicts have become entrenched. These displaced people mainly stay within their own borders, or those of neighbouring states: Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have taken in almost 4 million Syrians (4). Only a minority risk trying to reach Europe. In theory, citizens of states at war can claim refugee status in EU member states, all of which signed the 1951 Geneva Convention. In practice, this is not easy.
Though the struggle is far from over after a refugee has reached Europe, most obstacles are encountered on the journey. It is impossible to make an asylum request from abroad. For legal French protection, an applicant must go to a French embassy or consulate in his own country (or a neighbouring country if those at home are closed, as in Syria and Somalia) to request an asylum seeker’s visa, which only entitles him to enter France to make a formal application. But the ministry of the interior is sparing with these visas and in 2014 granted them to just 712 Syrians (5). Someone who has fled Homs and managed to reach Beirut to apply for a visa is unlikely to be able to leave Lebanon for France legally.
Millions of refugees
Another legal method of entering the EU is to get into a camp run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, then wait to be transferred to a country with a resettlement agreement. But success rates are low: France accepted just 500 Syrians by this route in 2014 (6).
There are millions of refugees. Most enter the EU illegally after a journey to the Turkish-Syrian border, where jihadist groups are active, or to Libya, ravaged by militias. Traffickers offer their only chance of reaching Europe. The journey is long, dangerous and physically demanding, so a refugee is likely to be young, strong, determined and able to afford the cost. Most come from cities and have university degrees; 72% are men (not 99% as claimed by Marine Le Pen), 13% women and 15% children.
According to the Dublin II Regulation, which the EU adopted in 2003, an asylum application must be made in the first EU country in which a refugee arrives. This ignores the reality of migration, as many want only to pass through Greece or Italy. But someone who wants to join a relative or friend in Sweden is forced to act illegally to get there; this rule also creates a serious imbalance, since most refugees arrive in Europe’s southern states. Retaining this rule is absurd, as northern states rarely send refugees back to Greece or Italy.
Spain was in the front line in the early 2000s, as people from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb tried to cross the Straits of Gibraltar or get into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa. As the barriers went up (walls, camps, Frontex operations), the flow switched to Italy and Malta, where migrants from Libya and Tunisia came ashore, or to Greece, where they arrived from Turkey (7).
Since 2011 and the Arab Spring, most crossings have had these three states as destinations. These countries bear a double burden: they have to control the EU’s external borders and also manage the arrival, reception, accommodation — often in camps — and demands of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Greece, under pressure to comply with austerity programmes, is poorly equipped to fulfil such a role. “This problem is beyond us. Greece […] is suffering an economic crisis and is facing a humanitarian crisis at the same time,” said prime minister Alexis Tsipras (8).
Turning one of its most fragile members into its guard dog would be a formidable challenge for the EU. But that does not stop Greece being castigated by its European “partners”, who threatened in December to expel it from the Schengen area if it didn’t control its borders better. “Each country must respect the Schengen code, including the rule which requires asylum requests to be made in the country of arrival,” said the Polish head of the European Council, Donald Tusk (9). As this advice is easier for Sweden, Germany and France to follow than Italy and Greece, Tusk added that countries “on the front line” should benefit from “European solidarity”.
But as with monetary policy, solidarity is not evenly distributed. Several northern countries are keen for the problem to be contained in the south, where countries are fighting each other over who should bear the heaviest burden. In 2008-9, the Italian and Maltese governments clashed over which country should take in those people Frontex’s Operation Nautilus intercepted in the central Mediterranean. According to Italy, responsibility lay with Malta, host of the mission. The Maltese government invoked international law, claiming they should be taken to the nearest “safe” port, Lampedusa. Brussels stepped in and decided against Malta, which has not hosted a Frontex mission since (10).
A Schengen ‘violation’
Italy was less favoured in 2010, when Silvio Berlusconi’s government decided to make 25,000 temporary residence permits available, opening the prospect of Tunisians who had come ashore in Sicily moving around Europe. Italy was opposed by Austria, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Holland and Slovakia, claiming a Schengen violation. Nicolas Sarkozy, then president, suspended French rail links with Italy. The case went to the European Commission, which found in France’s favour and agreed to change the rules governing free movement of people. Although it was not previously possible to close a border except “in the case of serious threat to public order or internal security”, since 2013, countries have been allowed to do so on the grounds of “persistent and serious deficiencies by a member state in controlling its external borders”.
With a flow of migrants that cannot be halted at Europe’s borders, this new measure threatens the existence of the Schengen area. After the Paris attacks in November by jihadists, several of whom had passed themselves off as refugees, the EU responded to the threat of closed borders by signing a hasty agreement with Turkey, offering $3bn, the promise of easier access to EU visas for Turks and revived EU membership negotiations in return for Turkey’s agreement to halt refugees on its territory and to readmit economic migrants. This “common action plan” was presented as an achievement but contains nothing new — the EU and its members have signed over 300 readmission agreements with 85 countries. The negotiations are often blackmail in disguise: EU governments offer a more conciliatory stance on foreign or trade policy in exchange for greater cooperation on migrants (11).
Even if Turkey tirelessly pursued migrants, the agreement would not solve the problem but merely displace it, perhaps to Libya, where traffickers have been unchallenged since the fall of Gaddafi. There is no reason to think that the flow of migrants will cease. Such a dynamic harms the European project, founded on free movement since the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
The Schengen agreement, eliminating national borders, was signed in 1985 by France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and its primary aim was not to allow citizens to travel freely but to tackle a year-long crisis in the common market. French and Italian customs employees, unhappy at their workload because of increased trade between European nations, worked to rule and checked all lorries at border crossings. HGV drivers responded with roadblocks, which caused huge traffic jams, especially in the peak holiday season. When the dispute ended, the Benelux Secretariat investigated the free movement of people and goods in Europe. Germany encouraged the project, as its manufacturing- and export-led economy was held back by the restrictions of the European road network. This led to the Schengen agreement in 1985, the Schengen Convention in 1990 and the effective removal of internal borders between western nations in 1997, followed by a gradual extension of this to 26 countries (12).
Since the 1980s, trade within Europe has increased enormously. Cars assembled in France are made from foreign-produced parts that may have passed through several countries before reaching the production line. In 2013, 1,765bn tonne-kilometres (13) of European goods were transported by road. Every day, hundreds of thousands of heavily laden lorries cross the continent on delivery schedules that will not accommodate lengthy border checks. For the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people have taken advantage of the freedom of movement to work in a neighbouring country. France had 158,000 such commuters in 1995, and now has over 350,000.
‘New barriers threaten business’
Any challenge to Schengen would require a thorough reorganisation of the continent’s economy. The staunchest defenders of the single market repeatedly warn of this. The Netherlands’ road haulage federation claimed last September that a return of national borders would lose €600m a year for its members. “If internal borders are reintroduced,” said EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström, “we will have serious problems” (14).
Abandoning the Schengen area would end industrial subcontracting and social dumping, and might mean that some companies relocated to their major markets, with environmental benefits. But it will not solve the refugee crisis. Re-establishing French borders will not prevent boats landing in Spain. If migrants find their way blocked at the Pyrenees, they will pay traffickers to take a clandestine route as used in the 1950s and 60s when the Salazar dictatorship forbade legal emigration from Portugal. The French government may propose a wall, as Hungary is currently building along its border with Serbia, replicating the same vicious circle as the US: sophisticated repression brings more professional trafficking. It doesn’t stop illegal immigration.
It is hardly surprising that Europe’s far-right parties blame Schengen and immigration for unemployment, terrorism and the erosion of the welfare state; they have long campaigned for the re-establishment of national borders and some have recently converted to protectionism. What is surprising is that pro-Europeans are advocating solutions which would destroy the union they have built over the past 30 years. This shows how far nationalism now extends beyond the far right, reaching political groups which, faced with exceptional circumstances, no longer consider new solutions and prefer the old tactic of setting an “indigenous” working class against foreigners. Other than Germany, which proposes bringing tens of thousands of migrants from Tunisia to Europe, and Sweden, no government will risk backing less rigid visa controls. Even parties on the radical left keep quiet for fear of alienating public opinion, easily spooked by immigration.
Since the Paris attacks, the idea that the flow of migrants is unmanageable has been treated as a given in France. Yet, in 1939, France, which had scarcely recovered from the economic crisis of 1929 and was preparing for war, took in more than 450,000 Spanish republicans. This did stir up popular resentment, but the newcomers were helped to integrate by unions and leftwing parties.
In the 1970s, during the economic crisis caused by the oil crises, France welcomed the boat people of Southeast Asia. Famous intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, campaigned to save them. Almost 130,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians were granted permission to stay — they were fleeing communist regimes, although strictly they fell outside the Geneva Convention. (In 2015 President Hollande committed to taking in just 24,000 Syrians over two years.) Raymond Barre’s government spared no efforts to help them settle; they were given visas, temporary housing and helped by welcome committees. The national employment agency established special units, and there were tax incentives to encourage employers to take them on. This policy, based on significant state action, had consequences: “It helped to shape the way in which they were perceived, and legitimised their presence,” wrote sociologist Karine Meslin. “The quality of this welcome seems to have been perceived as calibrated to the intrinsic worth of the foreigners […] This is a reminder of the importance of welcome policies” (15).
Today’s refugees are presented as profiteers from social benefits, threats to national identity, thieves of jobs, and religious extremists, even potential terrorists. They arrive in great disorder in Europe, where nothing has been laid on for them. Images of thousands disembarking on Greek and Italian coasts or crossing Hungarian and Slovenian borders create a sense of invasion. With such a media narrative, it’s no wonder security measures appeal to the electorate.
(1) “Trop de temps a été perdu depuis Charlie Hebdo” (Too much time wasted since Charlie Hebdo), 18 November 2015 (www.republicains.fr); press release from Marine Le Pen, 19 November 2015; “La France doit cesser d’exposer son peuple aux assassins” (France must stop exposing its people to murderers), Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s blog, 15 November 2015; France 2, 19 November 2015.
(3) Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide,Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2009.
(5) Annual Report for 2014 (in French), France Terre d’Asile, Paris, 2015.
(7) See Camille Schmoll, Hélène Thiollet and Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, Migrations en Méditerranée, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2015.
(8) Agence France Presse, 7 August 2015.
(10) Julien Jeandesboz, “Au-delà de Schengen: Frontex et le contrôle des frontières de l’Europe” (Beyond Schengen: Frontex and the control of Europe’s borders), in Sabine Dulline and Etienne Forestier-Peyrat (eds), Les Frontières mondialisées,Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2015.
(11) Virginie Guiraudon, “Les effets de l’européanisation des politiques d’immigration et d’asile” (The effects of the Europeanisation of immigration and asylum policies), Politique européenne, n°31, Paris,2010.
(12) All EU member states are bound by the Dublin II Regulation on rights of asylum, but six are not signatories of the Schengen Convention: the UK, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Croatia. Some non-EU members belong to the Schengen area: Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway.
(13) One tonne transported over one kilometre.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.