The Coming Crisis: The migrant crisis and the future of the European project

08 June 2016

Nicola Phillips - Professor of Political Economy, University of Sheffield

The economic, political and social consequences of failing to respond effectively to the migrant crisis risk accelerating European disintegration

Digesting the relentless news stories about the devastating numbers of lives lost in the Mediterranean, the living conditions endured by the human beings seeking passage into and across Europe, and the increasingly incoherent political responses of European leaders, there can be few other conclusions to draw but that the so-called European migrant crisis has been a case study in European political failure. The failure to develop remotely effective responses to what are, clearly, inordinately complex problems reflects many of the wider political challenges facing elites and societies in Europe.  But the ‘migrant crisis’ is also a dimension of what the editors of this series have called a ‘coming crisis’, inasmuch as it brings with it a wide range of political, economic and social implications that are deeply troubling on their own, but the more so when viewed alongside the long-standing economic crisis in southern Europe and the deeply contentious and unequal politics of austerity across the region.

Let us dwell for a moment on some of the dimensions of this regional political failure. Most obviously, we have seen a failure of political coordination among European member states.  It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that the migration crisis represents one of the most notable and consequential episodes of political failure in the history of European cooperation, which many worry retains the capacity to challenge the core of the European project.  The attempt by the German government to lead a humane response to the crisis by welcoming large numbers of refugees was perhaps inevitably doomed to failure, given the political conditions that are attached to issues of immigration across Europe.  Some of the largest countries, including the UK, were unwilling to offer asylum to a proportionate share of refugees.  Countries such as Hungary and Macedonia could not be prevented from violently blocking the passage of migrants, such that they remained camped in appalling conditions at Europe’s borders.  Ultimately the German government itself could not withstand domestic political pressures sharpened by the numbers of migrants and refugees entering the country when it opened its borders.

The result was a deal with Greece, struck as the crisis reached desperate proportions, for the deportation of refugees to Turkey in the hope of achieving a more ‘orderly’ admission of manageable numbers of people into European territory. Quite apart from the questions that were raised about the legality of this scheme, it was clear before its implementation that enforcing this deal was the tallest of orders.  We know from experience since implementation started that it has done little to solve the problem.  The most troubling manifestation of this failure of policy is that thousands of people are known to be ‘missing’, especially as temporary camps have been forcibly closed in Greece, and their inhabitants thought to have been dispersed across Europe by smugglers or to be living rough away from ‘official’ refugee camps.

The dimensions of political failure are further evident in the implementation of those (limited) agreements which have been reached between European member states in relation to responsibility for receiving refugees and migrants.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in March this year that, while donor countries at a meeting held in London had pledged US$6bn for this year’s humanitarian and development programmes in Syria and neighbouring countries, only about 8 per cent of those pledges had been disbursed, and donors were still yet to allocate some of the funds announced for individual agencies.  We remain in a situation where the richest countries in the world have pledged to resettle only about 0.5 per cent of refugees from Syria.

So, how should we understand the consequences of this story of political failure, and particularly their connections with a scenario of ‘coming crisis’? The first set of consequences is, of course, for the individual human beings caught up in a situation of political limbo.  We know who the major beneficiaries of this crisis are: the smuggling and trafficking networks which are profiting enormously from the desperation of refugees and migrants, and ‘employers’ who see business opportunities in the huge numbers of people denied access to labour markets in European countries.  Evidence is accumulating thick and fast of the patterns of severe labour exploitation, including forced labour and child labour, which are connected with the migration crisis.  Trafficking for labour exploitation and sexual exploitation are increasingly well documented in such countries as Turkey and Lebanon, and across Europe.  Children are known to be a ‘preferred target’ of criminal gangs looking to force migrants into slavery.  At the same time, the conditions endured in camps across Europe are known to be appalling – in some instances ‘unfit for animals’ – and the recent forcible demolitions of camps in countries such as France and Greece have compounded the conditions of destitution in which migrants and refugees are living.

Second, the political consequences of the failure of political leadership are increasingly evident. The crisis has caused remarkable and novel forms of mobilisation across the region demanding of our political leaders humane generosity in their treatment of refugees fleeing war, conflict and poverty.  Street demonstrations and protests, ‘refugees welcome’ campaigns on social media, and  the publicised kindnesses of people and communities have made for rare viewing in our contemporary age, and it is hard to call to mind any comparable recent instances of mobilisation of this sort and on this scale around the issue of immigration.  But it has also, predictably, hardened political positions at other points on the spectrum, notably among far right groups such as Pegida, and right-wing political parties wedded to anti-immigration and nationalist agendas.  Given existing concerns about the renewed vigour of right-wing and far-right politics in the context of economic crisis, this fuelling of political tension across the region is dangerous for the coherence of the European project.  This is especially so when set alongside such developments as the British referendum on continued EU membership, which for sections of British society is recognised to pivot around perceptions of immigration more than any other issue.

Third, the economic consequences of this story of political failure are marked. Especially for countries like Greece, already mired in economic crisis and an extremely fragile political landscape, the burdens of implementing the ‘deal’ struck by European leaders have been economically heavy. At the same time, the crisis has implied a flourishing of the informal, illegal and illicit economies, with consequences for the project of economic recovery in some of the countries still experiencing deep recession or austerity.

Finally, the social consequences of political failure are manifold. All of the dynamics noted above crystallise into a landscape of new and deepened inequalities – economic, political, social, and relating to opportunity and rights – which must be of concern for any progressive version of the European project.  If the conjunction of crisis points documented in this blog series are indeed pointing towards the potential – at least – for accelerated European disintegration, and given the sheer scale of the political salience of migration and immigration issues across member states, then the task of finding politically sustainable responses to the crisis are indisputably a matter of urgency.

The Coming Crisis SPERI blog series: In next week’s blog – published on June 15th – Tony Payne will explore the responses of global governance institutions to the current condition of the global economy and consider if they can head off a further crisis. 

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