Will migrants make or break Europe?

This piece was written a couple of months ago as a submission for a Fellowship with The Economist (which I didn’t get, hence I’m now publishing it here instead).

Europe as a political construct was born in the midst of a movement of peoples that makes the numbers involved in the current crisis look paltry. Between 1945 and 1950, more than 11 million Germans were expelled from or left Eastern Europe. At the peak of this period, 14,400 Germans were crossing the border from Czechoslovakia every day.

In the almost sixty years since the Treaty of Rome, Europe has absorbed many waves of migrants. In the first two decades of “Europe”, France accepted hundreds of thousands of Algerians and Vietnamese boat people; Austria took in Hungarians and Czechs fleeing Soviet oppression; Britain received Ugandan Asians fleeing the despotism of Idi Amin; and West Germany opened its doors to Turkish “guest workers”. The collapse of Communism and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s brought a further wave of immigrants.

So the current crisis isn’t exactly without precedent. And yet, European unity does look more precarious today than in any previous crisis. One reason for this is that the European ideal has lost much of its intellectual clarity and moral force. The European machine is driven on more by inertia than a sense of purpose. Across the continent, pro-Europeans struggle to match the passion of anti-Europeans.

In the beginning, Europe’s raison d’être was clear: to stop France and Germany ever going to war again. Then it became part of the architecture of the Cold War: a bulwark against the spread of Communism. This Cold War spirit spilled over into the 1990s as Europe welcomed former Soviet states into the fold. But since the turn of the millennium, the high priests of the European faith have struggled to articulate a vision that inspires (monetary union is an even more complete failure in this regard than it is in economic terms).

It’s because of this lack of a compelling common purpose and the poor economic performance of the Eurozone that the migrant crisis truly could be make or break. Which way it goes depends on how Europe’s leaders respond. Both politically and economically, the current situation has considerable potential upside as well as downside.

Take the economic case. On one hand, the long-term benefits of accepting immigrants are pretty clear. Europe has an ageing population: an influx of mostly youthful immigrants could help stave off fiscal disaster as economies collapse under the weight of an unbearable pensions burden. Even in the short term, studies show that immigrants are generally net contributors to the countries that host them. This is no less true of refugees than it is of economic migrants. The simple truth is that people who are willing to risk life and limb to get here rarely conform to the “scroungers” stereotype.

And yet, in a Europe where the continent-wide unemployment rate is more than 10% – sometimes twice that in the south – a backlash is inevitable. Immigrants may bring prosperity in the long run. But when jobs are as scarce as they are in Europe today, the perception that their arrival makes life even harder for unemployed natives is bound to cause problems.

migrants and merkel

This is where the response of Europe’s political leaders matters most. On one hand, they could see this crisis as an historic opportunity to re-invigorate Europe’s sense of purpose – a chance to turn their gaze outwards rather than focusing on intra-EU squabbles. The problems on Europe’s borders aren’t going away. Whatever policymakers say, the migrants from war-torn Middle Eastern and North African countries will continue to come. Arguably, this makes a stable, cohesive Europe more important than ever. If the burden of dealing with refugees continues to fall almost exclusively on just a handful of countries, the resultant instability will be bad for everyone (just look at the resurgence of Germany’s far right). Only by acting together can Europe tackle this crisis.

But for now, most national leaders seem beholden to the xenophobic NIMBYism of a minority (albeit a loud one) of their populations. Meanwhile, officials in Brussels are unwilling to countenance the possibility that saving the EU might require them to slay some sacred cows. The Schengen Area makes it very difficult to implement any policy aimed at getting countries to accept their “fair share” of refugees, because there’s no way of stopping people moving between countries once they’re in a Schengen country. And the Euro looks increasingly like a millstone around the neck of southern Europe’s struggling economies, which need to enter a new age of growth if they are to absorb newcomers. Both Schengen and the Euro may need to be sacrificed in order to secure the future of Europe.

The moment of greatest opportunity may already have passed. If any of Europe’s leaders had been willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Angela Merkel on the refugee issue, and if officials in Brussels had been willing to grasp the nettle and push a radical EU reform agenda, then 2015 could have been the start of a new chapter. As it is, NIMBYism and inertia appear to have won the day. The safe money is now on break.

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