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At a time when populism and xenophobia in Europe are rising, a British departure from EU is reality, and the thought of a President Marine Le Pen in France, it is very clear to the common man that Europe is divided. There are many reasons to the division. However, one issue that has been the subject of this division since the start of the Syrian civil war, is refugees.
The financial crisis in 2007 gave a green light for populist parties to pursue their agenda, and they have since been growing in influence. In Europe, the parties have a lot of common factors. One of the major being anti-immigration, particularly immigrants from Africa and the Middle-East. This is hardly a surprise to anyone. The world is currently seeing its biggest humanitarian crisis since the second world war. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the Syrian civil war has led to 5 million refugees being displaced, almost one million of them reaching Europe. As a consequence, immigration has dominated the political debate since the start of the war.
In countries like Germany and Sweden, people have taken a humanitarian approach to the issue. With the clear guidance of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, large crowds of Germans were gathered at train stations last year to welcome the many Syrian refugees who made it to Germany. Mrs. Merkel has been criticized for her openness, not at least from her sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union. Nevertheless, populist and anti-immigration parties have been very unsuccessful in Germany. This, in contrast to the rest of Europe.
Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, succeeded in making immigration one of the biggest issues for the Brexit referendum. Before the referendum, Mr. Farage unveiled a controversial poster, with a picture of a long queue of migrants, mostly Middle Eastern, with a banner saying “Breaking point: The EU has failed us all”. Even if migration wasn’t the only issue in the campaign, Mr. Farage succeeded to get an out-vote.
In France, Marine Le Pen is a favourite to make it to the second round in the presidential election. Describing her immigration policies, Mrs. Le Pen has argued that french citizenship should “only be inherited or earned”. Her policies show how rights of immigrants are secondary to the native French. Welfare, education, and jobs should all go to native Frenchmen, before they go to any immigrants.
These viewpoints have however not been kept exclusively to the far-right. Many of the traditional parties have taken the anti-immigration rhetoric which has earlier been found at the far-right of the political spectrum. In France, Francois Fillon, the presidential candidate for the Republican party, is considered to be at the centre-right. Mr. Fillon has said during the campaign that immigration must be reduced to a minimum. In Sweden, both the opposition and the government are using isolationist rhetoric. The Moderate party has opened up to collaborate with the Sweden democrats while the government decided last year to implement id-control at the Danish border, making it practically impossible for refugees without a valid ID to get to Sweden.
To cope with this division within the EU, last year a deal with Turkey was set: In exchange for visa-free travel for some Turkish citizens, EU would be able to send refugees who have made it to Greece, back to Turkey. The effects of this deal have led to a dramatic decrease of asylum-seekers who travelled to Greece by boat (an open definition). However, the deal is now in jeopardy, as the European-Turkish relationship seems to have reached a new low. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has threaten to suspend the migration deal if EU does not give the Turks visa-free travel. EU, however, wants Turkey to make its terrorism laws more concrete.
Additionally, in order to manage the amount of refugees, border controls have been implemented. Sweden set up border control between Copenhagen and Malmö last year. Mrs. Merkel decided in late 2015 to have a passport control at the Austrian border, followed by the Netherlands, Austria, and Slovakia. These so-called temporary solutions, contravene the very foundation of the EU: The free movement of people and goods. Barriers like these could have a severe economic impact on both travel and trade. It is estimated that 1.7 million persons cross a border in the EU to get to work. Border controls mean that the travel time like these increases, but also for the exports of goods. If truck drivers are spending more time in queues, industries face increasing payments for these hours.
There is no question that there is both a moral duty and financial need to let refugees inside EU. As a continent who has lived through two world wars, it is not strange that we need to help those who seek shelter. As for the financial part, the refugees are needed in Europe. In many of the European countries, the fertility rate is under 2 births per woman, which in theory means a shrinking population. A shrinking and aging population is a serious threat to the welfare of a country, as the majority need be in the workforce. Refugees and other immigrants offer a good solution to this problem. The cost of having refugees is lower than native residents, as the majority of the refugees can be found paying taxes just a couple of years after they arrive. A native resident is a cost for the society until the day he or she starts working, which in the normal case is after high school or university.
The refugee situation is not a problem exclusive to the member states, it is a pan-European problem and therefore needs a pan-European solution. Today, Germany and Sweden have been the two countries who have showed that people fleeing the war and the political cruelty, should not be asked to turn around at the border. However, rhetorics in the two countries show that even they are tired of handling this crisis alone.
Europe needs common refugee regulation to combat this problem together in order to heal the division between the member states. Firstly, to get countries such as Hungary or Poland, which haven’t accepted their fair amount of refugees, to open up their refugee policy. The EU needs laws that force them to accept refugees, with consequences if they don’t. Secondly, the asylum process within the EU needs to shorten. Today, the average screening process for some nationals is longer than a year. More resources can be sent to authorities responsible for the asylum process in order to make them more effective. Furthermore, the screening process can start already when the refugees are in Turkey, so at the time they reach Europe, they would have already been granted asylum. If refugees are allowed into the workforce as soon as they get to Europe, a faster integration can be made and the benefits will come faster to the European society.
Europe must heal this division, before the populism and xenophobia wave spreads West to France and Spain. If populism and xenophobia would succeed in one of the big founding members of the EU, the idea of a peaceful and integrated Europe is in jeopardy. Populism and xenophobia are threatening Europe – they must not win.