How Europe Can Win on Migration

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Start with the good news: Some 150,000 migrants sought to enter Europe illegally last year. That represents a 92% drop since 2015. The number of people seeking asylum in 2018 was 646,000, less than half of what it was three years ago. In numerical terms, Europe’s migration crisis is over.

Politically, the issue remains as divisive as ever. Ahead of this month’s elections to the European Parliament, populists are intent on claiming that Europe’s societies are under siege, while blocking efforts to come up with an EU-wide policy for controlling the problem. At a time when shrinking populations threaten Europe’s growth, the far right’s anti-immigrant agenda is as economically disastrous as it is cynical.

Defeating it requires European leaders to demonstrate they can avert chaotic surges in human traffic, like the one that overwhelmed Europe in 2015 — and to make the case for accepting newcomers in an orderly fashion. That means a comprehensive, shared strategy for securing Europe’s borders, reforming its asylum system, and opening new pathways for legal immigration.

In the area of border protection, the EU has made incremental progress. The European Commission has proposed increasing the budget of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency to 11.3 billion euros for the six years starting in 2021, up from some 320 million euros this year.

While that’s promising, the agency needs more powers — and support from member states — to function effectively. The Commission wants the agency’s staff to grow to 10,000 by next year, but still must convince governments to provide security personnel to the force and adopt common training standards. EU border and coast-guard officers should also be empowered to perform certain duties alongside national authorities, such as patrolling border crossings and running identity checks on migrants.

Lacking an adequate border-patrol force, the EU is unprepared for the next crisis. The union’s rules on asylum also need to be rationalized, through a common, EU-wide system to distribute asylum seekers across all member states, rather than requiring that they be processed in the countries where they arrive. This would ensure that front-line states, such as Italy and Spain, don’t bear a disproportionate burden for housing and processing asylum seekers.

If populist governments such as those in Hungary and Poland refuse to accept their share, the EU should move ahead without them. French President Emmanuel Macron has hinted at revoking Hungary’s and Poland’s memberships in the passport-free Schengen Area if they refuse to take in asylum seekers. While such an extreme step is unlikely to be taken up, the EU shouldn’t shy away from imposing consequences for the populists’ defiance. For instance, it could make structural adjustment funds conditional on member states adhering to common asylum rules.

In the face of fearmongering about migrants, moderate voices should emphasize Europe’s long-term interests in attracting workers from the rest of the world. The process for obtaining a Blue Card visa, a program for high-skilled workers that allows them to work in any member state except the U.K., Denmark and Ireland, should be streamlined. Brussels should offer funding for partnerships between individual governments and non-European countries aimed at certifying workers who can fill critical labor-market needs.

To sell voters on the benefits of pluralism, liberals should also recognize its limits. The EU needs to accelerate immigrant groups’ assimilation into host countries, through increased spending on integration and language-training programs. And it should invest much more diplomatic energy in securing agreements with countries in Africa and the Middle East to take back and protect asylum seekers whose applications are denied.

The xenophobic rhetoric of right-wing populists is dangerous and self-defeating. But it has tapped into legitimate public anxieties about the pace of social change. Defenders of the European project should get behind a more orderly and rigorously enforced response to illegal migration, while creating new ways for immigrants to contribute to Europe’s future.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.