The EU’s inadequate response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean threaten the Schengen zone and the Union’s identity. Prevailing opinion among Czech elites is based on substantive errors, questionable political analysis and morally indefensible positions. Czech Republic and the rest of the V4 need an alternative approach if we are to prevent migrant deaths and prevent the idea of Europe from getting lost at sea.
European governments are struggling to find an adequate response to tragedies in the Mediterranean and the rise in irregular immigration from and through the conflict-torn Southern Neighbourhood. As members of the Schengen zone, the Czech Republic and other post-communist EU members can no longer pretend it is someone else’s problem. A serious debate on migration is long overdue at the European level and in the EU’s member states.
In this context, last week’s commentary by Radko Hokovský and Jakub Janda is significant, not least because it reflects the prevailing consensus among Czech political elites. While welcome in that it could kick-start the necessary debate, the position they outline contradicts the European values they purport to defend.
The authors loosely align themselves with the meagre package of measures adopted by the Council (inter alia additional money for Triton operation, police/military action against smuggling networks, addressing root-causes etc.). However, they warn against any moves toward a more cohesive and Communitarian migration/asylum policy, lest this would trigger an even greater influx of refugees/migrants and invite an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populist backlash that could threaten the EU’s very existence.
Acknowledging that it may sound “cynical and too pragmatic”, they argue against EU-wide burden-sharing of asylum claimants, resettlement of migrants, externalized offshore asylum processing of asylum application etc., insisting that decision-making on granting of residency and asylum must remain in the hands of national governments. Hokovský and Janda write that, in the absence of popularly endorsed political Union, transferring more competences to European Commission would be grist to the mill of anti-immigration populist forces. “Creation of a common asylum and migration policy would be the last decision of the EU before it disintegrated.”
This is a position espoused by the current government and PM Sobotka, which is unfortunate because it is wrong on substance, unconvincing in its political analysis, and morally more disturbing than its authors care to admit.
Substantial Errors: Simplification, Conflation & Obfuscation
First, in substantive terms, the position advanced by Hokovský and Janda makes a series of untenable simplifications and straw man arguments: it reduces the present challenge to a choice between a Brussels power-grab and maintaining national sovereignty; it ignores the distinction between regular and irregular migration, as well as between refugees and economic migrants; and, crucially, it buys into the fiction that migration is exclusively negative – a threat to be guarded against rather than an opportunity to be embraced.
The migration situation that the EU and its member states face is much complex than that and, in fact, borders, asylum and migration are already semi-Europeanized policies – a patchy framework that, as the latest spate of tragedies show, simply doesn’t work: for migrants, border guards or Europeans. This means that while Schengen states share the benefits of common borders they do not share the burdens equally, leaving states such as Italy and Greece unable to cope. This puts migrants in unnecessary danger and threatens the continued existence of the Schengen zone, which relies on the integrity of its frontiers to facilitate regular, rather than irregular mobility.
However, an effective response would not require full Europeanisation of migration policy. Coalitions of willing states could establish offshore migration processing facilities and launch a naval operation to conduct SAR and prevent migrant boats reaching the high seas. These steps would reduce migrant deaths while meeting legal commitments to asylum seekers, while the Frontex Triton mission would provide border protection and guard against irregular migration. While Hokovský and Janda concede that member states could do this, they argue, in effect, that they should not as it would provoke a Eurosceptic backlash that would threaten the EU itself.
However, this worst-case scenario again ignores the complexity of border and migration policy. Member states would remain in control of decisions over asylum-seekers who arrive directly on their territory (as opposed to being re-settled) and they would also remain in charge of the entry and stay of economic migrants to whom, unlike to refugees, they have no obligation. It is unfortunately indicative of the prevailing climate that the focus is on the threats and burdens, rather than the opportunities and contributions, of migration – a distortion that the conflation of refugees with economic migrants compounds.
Shutting the door on such migrants is not only morally questionable, but also risks missing out on an economic windfall. Research has repeatedly shown that migrants bring benefit rather than cost, many are ‘exceptional people’ willing to risk everything for a better life and the majority are young, driven and willing to work. Managing such migration through regular channels, allied to political engagement with – rather than pandering to – discontented groups, also holds out the possibility of exactly the people-to-people contacts that mitigate the xenophobia that Hokovský and Janda lament – as it has within the EU.
Political Consequences: Falling Out or Falling Together?
Second, Hokovský and Janda’s article presents a flawed analysis of the potential political fallout of a more progressive response. The threat of populist backlash is wildly inflated and there are far more states that would be willing to partake in the type of common action to solve this common problem (as outlined above) than the authors allow for.
Those states that face the greatest burden in dealing with the high and ongoing migratory pressure driven by the need of those facing war and other catastrophes and the desires of those who seek a better life have expressed their desire for such common action. From Italy on the front line to Germany and Sweden who take the highest number of asylum seekers, have seen no surge in populist anti-European forces. Indeed, the attitude of those at the sharp end of migrant capsizes has been a welcome silver lining in this humanitarian crisis. In Germany, Pegida is in disarray and effective burden sharing would help blunt the attacks of parties such as Alternative fuer Deutschland. Both Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer (neither known for being soft-touch, liberal idealists) support common action. Hakovsky and Janda claim that Europeanising asylum policy would be a ‘rash’ move that would threaten the EU. Merkel in particular is noted for avoiding such hasty or politically inconsidered moves.
In countries with the highest migrant intake (Italy, Greece, Malta, but also France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden), increased EU solidarity and burden sharing would actually lend ammunition to pro-EU centrist governments against anti-immigrant anti-EU parties (insofar as “Europe” would be seen as a helping alleviate voters’ concerns over immigration). This leaves the Visegrad countries – who rightly revel in the benefits of Schengen for practical purposes as well as for reasons of belonging – along with Denmark and Finland as potential objectors. In the case of the Visegrad group, such hostility is particularly problematic.
European Values: Moral and Legal Responsibilities
In Czech Republic, the argument against common action on the migration crisis seems to be because it could actually work, leading to increased immigration and creating a new ‘pull factor’. It should be noted that similarly faulty logic was behind the decision to cancel and fail to replace the Mare Nostrum SAR operation. Disguised as a defence of Europe, this position effectively argues that letting people drown is warranted because it provides a powerful deterrent, although given the push factors driving the migration surge this is questionable.
Underlying this premise, which has thus far been illusory, is a worrying assumption about the innate xenophobia of the public. Tellingly, in many cases it is those communities least exposed to migrant populations who tend to be more hostile to them. If such xenophobia exists then, in accordance with European values and the history of the EU, should be challenged rather than simply accepted or, worse, instrumentalised to ignoble purpose. The Visegrad countries, which have themselves been on the receiving end of such prejudice and have been able to challenge it through the mobility that EU membership allows, know this all too well.
Hokovský and Janda’s analysis fails to account for EU member states’ legal commitments to allow potential refugees to claim asylum. More depressingly, it betrays willingness to free-ride in Schengen and to pander to the nastier sides of domestic populism. This is a morally indefensible and hypocritical position that contradicts the Union’s fundamental values and legal commitments. Should more EU Member States pursue this cynical strategy, it would indeed be the end of the EU as we know it.
 Like much of the analysis in this piece, this claim is based on the findings of the ESRC-funded research project conducted by Benjamin Tallis from 2011-2015 – publication of findings is forthcoming.