Mending Europe’s Patchwork Migration Policy

(The Bloomberg View) -- Immigration is Europe’s most divisive issue. From Sweden to Italy, voters accuse mainstream political parties of failing to control the recent influx of refugees and other migrants. Their anger threatens the European Union’s commitment to the free movement of EU citizens, which stands alongside the free movement of capital, goods and services as a defining feature of the union. The Schengen agreement, which abolished passport and other controls at most internal borders, is also at risk.

The current patchwork of proposals won’t work. Europe needs a comprehensive plan, drawing on the effort and resources of all its members, concentrating on four areas: more effective controls at the EU’s external borders; new rules on asylum; new channels for legal immigration from outside the EU; and new measures to integrate migrants.

Between January 2014 and March 2018, nearly 1.8 million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to enter the EU, according to data from the United Nations. Set against an EU population of more than 500 million, an inflow of that size, even though high by historical standards, should have been manageable. But governments failed to manage it. Europe’s member states were divided about what to do, and their collective response was feeble. Border countries, including Italy and Greece, asked for help in handling the inflow but were at least initially rebuffed. The most recent meeting of European Council, the EU’s top policy-making body, focused on the issue but got nowhere.

The first clear need is for coordinated control of the EU external border. Frontex, the EU border-control agency, should be put in charge of all search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. To do its job well, it will need more generous funding. Frontex’s budget stood at 320 million euros this year, up from 233 million euros in 2016. The European Commission now wants to give the agency 11.3 billion euros for the seven-year period starting in 2021 — a welcome step in the right direction.

A danger to be avoided is relying too much on third countries, including Turkey and Libya, to block illegal departures in return for financial and logistical support. These agreements are often unreliable and are difficult to police — and, when things go wrong, the human cost can be terrible. (Migrants forcibly returned to Libya have faced appalling abuse.)

Instead, the EU should change its rules on asylum. Its so-called Dublin regulation says applications must be dealt with by the country of first entry. This places great pressure on southern member states, particularly Italy and Greece. What’s needed is a fully centralized system, with applicants distributed across the union as a whole. This would relieve border countries from the pressure of processing too many applications, and lead to a fairer distribution of refugees.

But the problem is by no means confined to asylum. Africa’s population is on course to rise substantially over the coming decade. The disparity between incomes there and in Europe will push millions to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Carefully managed, this flow of economic migrants can work to Europe’s advantage, mitigating the effects of an aging population and relieving pressure on its pension and health-care systems. Lack of legal, well-regulated channels for immigration will increase the risk of crime and abuse, and turn this European opportunity into an ongoing nightmare.

At the moment, the EU offers only limited legal access to third-country nationals. It should establish a quota system allowing more legal immigration, and come to agreements with the countries of departure to repatriate those entering illegally.

Finally, and most important, Europe should invest far more in training and education, to give migrants the best possible chance of worthwhile employment and successful integration. Again, this should be a joint effort. The EU shouldn’t let the costs fall disproportionately on its border states. Europe’s budget should be expanded so that the union as a whole can pay for what’s required, regardless of where the immigrants are or how the money is actually spent.

Nobody should doubt how hard it will be to establish a new European compact on migration. The remedies of closer coordination and the pooling of funds are unlikely to appeal to voters disenchanted with the EU. But the case has to be made, because there’s no other choice. The alternative of failing to devise an effective policy on migration has been tried, and the results are in — chaos, great and avoidable suffering, and a still-mounting backlash against mainstream politics. There’ll be more of the same unless Europe’s leaders rise to this challenge.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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