Opinion

It's time Europe joined the dots on migration

08.04.08 @ 09:17

  1. By Graham Watson

The forthcoming French Presidency of the EU has announced plans for an immigration pact to control illegal entry and make it harder for foreigners to live and work in Europe, bringing immigration back to the top of the political agenda once again.

President Sarkozy outlined his plans after the Anglo-French summit in London, where he and Gordon Brown agreed to improve cooperation on a range of issues from tighter immigration controls to energy, security and defence.

While the two sides will focus on tightening border controls at the French port of Calais, following a series of security lapses, long-term they plan a package of highly restrictive immigration measures which could practically seal off the EU to outsiders.

This is par for the course for a President who campaigned to expel 25,000 illegal immigrants, and was later denounced by a coalition of Mayors and NGOs for making deportation 'the alpha and omega of migration policy' and treating migrants like 'disposable objects'. It is also a logical though deeply illiberal sequel to the tougher controls already introduced by the UK's Labour Government.

French ministers have also said they want a "common definition of the right of asylum" and have backed European Commission proposals that could see asylum seekers shared between EU states. British ministers probably secretly aspire to this too, though media mogul Rupert Murdoch's reaction dissuades them from saying so.

Britain and France should be applauded for recognising the need for a European approach to migration in place of the 27 - often contradictory - immigration and asylum systems, yet their heavy handed approach may well prove counterproductive in the long-term.

The fact of the matter is that the fight against illegal migration is the only area in which European Union member states have actively cooperated since it became a community competence in 1999, leaving legal migration and development policies up to national governments.

This has resulted in some successes, notably improved police and judicial co-operation, an increasing number of readmission agreements with third countries, and the creation of the European Border Control Agency FRONTEX to help police land and sea routes into the EU.

Yet by focussing our collective energy exclusively on policing borders and intercepting migrants, as Sarkozy and Brown suggest, Europe risks overlooking the need to address skills shortages, not to mention the factors that lead people to leave their countries in the first place.

War, poverty and human rights abuses will ensure that the movement of people from poor and failing states to rich and stable ones continues to grow until properly funded policies to promote democracy and development are put in place.

The EU must recognise that unless its trade policies prevent the easy trade in armaments and allow developing country producers to sell their goods on our markets and so create wealth, jobs and opportunities at home, people from poor countries will continue to vote with their feet.

Similarly, unless workers, through legal migration channels, can provide a steady flow of remittances of income to their home countries, investment capital for development in countries of origin will be insufficient to arrest brain drain and reverse the exodus.

It is unsurprising that the tide of illegal migrants will keep flowing towards Europe while in EU capitals there is still resistance to sending necessary troops and equipment to some of the world's worst trouble-spots, from Darfur, to Chad and Afghanistan.

Likewise, restrictive policies which aim to shut the gates of Fortress Europe on all comers tend to ignore the fact that the European economy, already reliant in large part on migrant labour, is set to lose 20 million workers in the next twenty years if we do not actively increase migration flows.

Unlike Canada and Australia which long-ago developed sophisticated strategies to attract the skills their economies need to thrive, the European Union has so far failed to reap the benefits of a skilled and mobile international workforce.

The lack of attractive legal migration options to Europe has ensured that 85% of the world's best brains go to America and Australia, put off by Europe's bureaucracy and inflexibility, while most migrants who actually reach our shores have few, if any, qualifications.

Clearly the status quo is not working. That is why a coalition of MEPs from across the European Parliament's political spectrum have written a pamphlet calling, in no uncertain terms, for a radical rethink of the way Europe handles migration policy.

We believe that putting the emphasis on illegal migration at the expense of a comprehensive, joined-up European Migration Policy fails both to address future demographic and economic challenges and tackle problems in their countries at their source.

Instead of the narrow-minded approach suggested at the Anglo-French Summit Europe we need to agree a far more ambitious package: one which combines the fight against illegal migration with the creation of legal migration channels and development and security policies that actively bolster third countries.

Before our ambitions can be achieved, however, parliamentarians and the media alike must commit to engaging in the crucial step of changing public perceptions. For without public confidence and backing, an ambitious global migration policy for Europe is unlikely to see the light of day.

The author is head of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the European Parliament