Options Available to European Policymakers

The options available to policymakers in addressing the migrant crisis were fairly limited. The diffuse nature of the European Union, as well as its fairly inflexible conventions governing asylum applications and refugees, meant that coordinating policy beyond the national level was more difficult than might have been expected of the world’s premier union of independent states. Rare during the crisis were moments of specific, binary choice. Instead, policymakers had (and have) the option of positioning themselves somewhere in between extremes. Very broadly speaking, this spectrum of choice(s) can be described as spanning between closed-door and open-door policies. As with many real-world examples of policy in action, it is important to make the distinction that virtually every policy proposed to address the crisis lay somewhere in the middle of this continuum, if only because EU law precludes a member-state from really choosing to allow no or all migrants in to the country.

Closed-Door Policies

Advocated strongly by many of the (comparatively) less developed and less wealthy states on Europe’s southern and eastern margins, closed-door policies were proposed to great electoral effect in countries throughout the continent. Insurgent nationalist and/or populist parties like France’s National Rally (formerly National Front), the UK Independence Party, Germany’s AfD, and others were able to translate a widespread fear of the effects of mass migration into election-time gains.

In the aforementioned states on Europe’s margins-particularly in the Visegrád Group (or V4) consisting of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary-illiberal leaders like the Hungarian Viktor Orbán were able to co-opt these fears into their own already-successful political movements. The “closed-door” view can be broadly summed up as a fear of the economic and cultural effects of a mass wave of migration, commonly complemented by a belief that the vast majority of asylum seekers are coming for solely economic motivations.

Members of the fascist party Golden Dawn at a rally in Greece. via DTRocks

Open-Door Policies

Perhaps the animating sentiment of those in favor of what I term “open-door” policies towards asylum seekers and migrants can be summed up with a quote from Germany’s Angela Merkel during the early days of the crisis. “Wir schaffen das”, or “We can do this”, encapsulates the more rosy view of policymakers who are (or at least were) confident that well-developed European countries could comfortably handle the influx of migrants, particularly if they worked together. Broadly speaking this sentiment was more popular (by no means universally) in the north and west of the continent. For those unfamiliar with the human geography of Europe, it is worth noting that in general the further north or west one goes the wealthier (and further from migratory routes) the area in question.

For perhaps understandable reasons politically speaking, despite probably appealing to a majority of European policymakers at the start of the crisis this confidence found little open expression in the speech of politicians anywhere in Europe. Whereas the V4 countries’ current leaders and populists across the continent have made much political hay in opposing migration, it is much more difficult to find a reliably pro-migrant constituency in Europe.

Even openly liberal and mostly welcoming leaders like Merkel or French president Macron have struggled to find a middle path, and many broadly liberal leaders like former British prime minister David Cameron found themselves running to the anti-immigration right to try to staunch the loss of that set of voters. While from a purely economic standpoint the EU could objectively take in far more migrants than it has thus far, it remains an open question as to whether even the most liberal European heads of state could find a mandate to allow similar levels of migrants in during another, similar crisis.

Sign from a pro-migrant protest in Dortmund. via Jeremias Spitzkraut

Meeting in the Middle: Options for Policymakers

Many of the options available to policymakers in addressing the migrant crisis were less a matter of picking one perfect solution and more a matter of trying to bring together rhetoric and reality. Three approaches have so far been key to the EU’s strategy: the use of regional gatekeepers like Turkey-currently accepting millions of Euros in exchange for not allowing Syrian migrants to continue through to the rest of Europe; working as quickly as possible to improve the speed and quality of asylum claim processing and distribution; and making efforts to help draw down the conflicts fueling the crisis in the first place.

While the first of the three main approaches-using Turkey and other neighbors as gatekeepers-has paid dividends in terms of cutting migrant numbers dramatically, its long-term application is of less certain value. As the number of refugees in Turkey swells, anti-migrant sentiment is growing much as it did across Europe from 2015 on. In the long run it is unclear that Turkey will continue to gain more from the deal than it loses in hosting millions who want to go to Europe. Even if the benefits remain a net positive, that may not matter in the face of domestic political opposition to the deal.

Working to improve the speed of asylum applications and the broader process for distributing migrants across the continent is and will remain an ongoing task, but as the specter of the height of the crisis fades one worries that so too will the impetus for reform and improvement.

Finally, drawing down the conflicts that fueled the migrant crisis in the first place is a noble and righteous goal. It is also woefully out of the hands of most European policymakers. Only two European countries have the ability to credibly project power abroad: the UK (currently in the process of leaving the EU), and France. Understandably, neither seems excited by the prospect of wading further in to the Syrian Civil War, or most of the conflicts that fueled the crisis. While many of these will undoubtedly come to an end at some point-if only after everything is blown to pieces-the general conditions that have fomented instability across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as further afield like in Eritrea and Mali, are going nowhere fast. The only way to truly bring peace to European neighbors is to foster development, and although some European countries do contribute an outsized amount of money in development efforts it is difficult to imagine finding the political will anytime in the next decade for the massive wealth transfers necessary to effect real change.

Further Reading

Migration Policy Institute: Using Fear of the “Other,” Orbán Reshapes Migration Policy in a Hungary Built on Cultural Diversity

Politico: 5 years on from Angela Merkel’s three little words: ‘Wir schaffen das!’

Turkey, EU and the imperilled refugee deal via Al Jazeera

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