Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When will the EU lift the taboo on the Australian solution for the refugee and migrant crisis?

Published on CapX

So far, the EU’s response to the refugee and migration crisis, which witnessed  1.2 million illegal crossings into the EU this year, has failed. Seven EU Summits were held this year but unlike with the “Seven Summits” mountaineering challenge, not much glory was achieved with it.

One measure EU member states agreed  was an EU scheme to “relocate160,000 refugees who have already arrived in the passport-free Schengen-zone. So far however, they only managed to relocate 200 people, on top of a few 1000 resettlements from refugee camps outside of the EU. The fact that it’s obviously not possible to stop people from moving within the Schengen area didn’t stop the EU Commission from putting a lot of energy in the scheme, in the process even damaging the EU’s image in central- and Eastern European countries which were being outvoted on the issue. It seems impossible to explain the simple fact that in a passport-free zone means one can’t keep people in one country to either German Chancellor Angela Merkel, obsessed by the desire to relocate a number of refugees some say she has invited, or the EU Commission, obsessed by using any crisis to grab more powers even if it means tarnishing the EU’s reputation.

A second measure was the creation of so-called “hotspots”,  EU-run reception centres in Italy and Greece, where migrants and refugees would be identified and fingerprinted.  So far, only two are functioning and the experience can’t be called successful: apart from the fact that they’re overcrowded, they also seem unable to make sure all arriving refugees actually register there.

Now the EU’s focus has shifted to create a new EU border and coast guard force, basically replacing current EU border agency Frontex. The EU Commission even dared to propose that the force would be allowed to operate on the territory of a member state which doesn’t want this, although this “invasion clause” is facing a lot of opposition from certain member states, with Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski complaining: “There would be an undemocratic structure reporting to no one knows who.”

More border guards in itself won’t prevent people from being able to just continue their journey once they have made it to a Greek island, for example Lesbos. When one rewards refugees who risk their lives by allowing them to just continue travel and not await their asylum application, it’s only logical that ever more people are going to try to make the dangerous journey. There are reports that Greece has transported refugees from the Greek islands to the mainland. Also, the efforts of the Italian Navy and multilateral Operation Triton to save people from drowning in the waters between Libya and Italy should be lauded, but the fact that these people are being transferred to the Italian mainland gives them an incentive to make the risky journey. This year, the UN reckons 706 people have died trying to reach Greece, 2,889 people trying to reach Italy and 100 trying to reach Spain.


There is an alternative. Unlike the EU, Australia has created a safe shelter outside of its territory to divert those attempting to make it to Australia illegally. Therefore, the country has closed a deal with Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The EU has no such deal with any third country. It can only choose between pushing back migrants and refugees to unsafe countries (or countries unwilling to take them back, like Turkey) or rewarding them for taking huge risks by bringing them to the EU’s mainland, which unintentionally becomes a ferry service for human smugglers.

Since Australia’s policy was implemented, there has been criticism of the conditions in the refugee camps, where also several people have died in isolated instances, but only a limited number of boats were caught trying to make the journey to Australia. Importantly, only one single death has been reported while no asylum-seeker boats have managed to arrive. Meanwhile, in the EU, 3,695 people have been dying this year, which means more than 70 every week, and that’s only those on record. That’s not including the 23,000 people which would have lost their lives in the last 15 years while attempting to reach Europe before this crisis.

Even if it may have been easier for Australia to do this, one shouldn’t forget that the country also witnessed disasters with hundreds dying at sea before implementing its successful policy. If only the EU would manage to half the number of people dying at sea, that would already be a massive step forward.

One would therefore expect the EU to consider this approach, preferably without repeating Australia’s mistake of providing bad conditions in its off-shore refugee shelters. Instead, Australia’s is solution has been quickly brushed off the table by the EU Commission, claiming that it wouldn’t be in line with the international legal principle of non-refoulement", which forbids forced return. That’s a questionable claim, given that people would be sent to an off-shore refugee shelter actually owned by EU states where they would retain fully the right to apply for asylum, unlike what’s the case currently in the EU’s “hotspots”, where respect for asylum seekers' rights is doubtful.

The EU could just perfectly copy the good aspects of Australia’s solution (create an offshore refugee shelter) while avoiding the bad aspects (bad conditions in refugee shelters). Germany’s own refugee shelters aren’t exactly a shining example of good governance, so it would be even better to try to set up not just an offshore refugee shelter for refugees but a proper city for refugees, governed by officials from countries with a high degree of rule of law. This solution, which I have dubbed “free havens”, has also been made by US business man Jason Buzi, who wants to give refugees their own Refugee Nation, by prominent US academics Anne-Marie Slaughter and Paul Romer and by Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, the 10th richest man in Africa, who  has offered to buy an island off Italy or Greece in order to rehouse hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other conflicts.
Obviously a major challenge would be to find a proper location, either within EU territory or outside of it. If an Egyptian businessman manages to identify a number of – naturally empty – islands, it may be feasible within the EU’s borders. Alternatively, one of the world’s many uninhabited places would be an option. It may cost a lot, but so does the current approach, which may ultimately cost Germany alone up to 900 billion euro according to some of the wilder estimates.

Even this wouldn’t solve everything, given that at the beginning of this year, according to EU border agency Frontex, “most of those  who currently reside in the EU illegally, originally entered in possession of valid travel documents and a visa whose validity period they have since overstayed”.  That’s also one reason why it wouldn’t make sense to abolish Schengen, which brings great personal and economic benefits of passport-free travel for citizens and companies. Neither should Schengen be the main reason for European countries to cooperate on border control. Refugees make it into Schengen while entering Greece, and then immediately leave the passport-free zone again when crossing the Balkans. The reason why European countries must cooperate here is due to the simple fact they share a natural sea border: the Mediterranean. Even if Greece and Italy would be kicked out of Schengen, it would make sense to help them guard Europe’s natural sea border.

Former Australian PM Tony Abbott has summarized it as follows: "If you want to keep life safe, you've got to keep the boats stopped." He has the facts on his side and slowly even the EU is somehow stumbling towards this solution. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo boasted after last week’s Summit that she had convinced the other EU leaders that “the solutions lie beyond, not within the EU’s borders.” After the failing attempt to relocate people within a passport-free zone we’ll probably now just have to wait for the EU to figure out that rewarding people who manage to cross the border with the right to continue their journey will undo all efforts to increase the number of border patrols. Whatever one thinks of the Australian solution: it deserves to be considered due to its success in terms of almost completely avoiding people dying at sea, certainly in the face of the tragic failure of the EU in this regard.

Pieter Cleppe represents independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels


  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Four reasons why we shouldn’t transfer more powers to the EU to deal with terrorism

Published by CapX and Open Europe

The attacks in Paris have predictably resulted in a whole set of new proposals to deal with the enormous challenge to fight violent salafi terrorism. Apart from the question whether we should give up liberty for more security and still deserve both in case we do, there is the question whether it’s a good idea to centralise security provision and in particular hand it over to the European Union. Here’s why we should be wary to trust the EU with this.

1.      The experience with the EU’s data retention directive should serve as a warning not to let the EU take care of our data

The EU already has a lot of powers in the area of justice and police matters, which we discussed with Open Europe in our 2009 research paper “How the EU is watching you”. One good example is the infamous “Data Retention Directive”, which requires telephone operators and internet service providers to store data regarding every phone call, text message, email and website that their users access and make it available to government authorities. This was passed in 2006 despite warnings by academics from the Dutch Erasmus University that 'in virtually all cases' the police could get all the traffic data they needed, based on average availability of telephony traffic data of 3 months. The European Parliament, supposedly a check on the EU machine, happily approved the rules, which however ended up in trouble when facing proper democratic checks: national parliaments and national Constitutional Courts. Sweden’s Parliament postponed the implementation of the directive, leading to Sweden having to pay a fine of 3 million euro to the EU in 2013. Already in 2009, Romania’s Constitutional Court declared the EU directive “unconstitutional”, something which its German counterpart did in 2010, criticising the absence of safeguards for privacy. Only four years later, in 2014, did the EU’s own top court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), come to a similar conclusion and annulled the legislation. The EU Commission has said it isn’t planning new EU data retention legislation.

The conclusion which should be drawn from the experience of the EU’s data retention directive should be obvious: there are insufficient checks and balances present at the EU level to trust it with policies governing an area so sensitively linked with the rule of law. Only the force of national democracy could reign in this dangerous piece of legislation.

2.      Deciding to store data is one thing. Sharing them across Europe yet another

The perpetrator of the recent attempted terrorist attack on the Thalys – train between Amsterdam and Paris was known by the security services of Spain and France, but this intel hadn’t been passed on to their colleagues in the Netherlands. Also a number of the terrorists acting in the Paris attacks were known – and interrogated – by the Belgian authorities. So it would make sense for national security services to share more intel on suspected terrorists, countering their mentality to jealously guard their secrets.

During the last year however, the focus at the EU level has oddly been more on sharing info of innocent citizens. EU countries are currently trying to agree on a Passenger Name Records (PNR) database. The idea is that member states would not only collect and retain information on anyone flying into or out of the EU but would also share the data. Over 60 different kinds of data of travellers would be collected, including their travel routes, IP-addresses, hotel bookings and diet preferences. This despite the EU’s top court’s own ruling that data retention without any link to a certain risk or suspicion isn’t proportionate and that human rights campaigners have warned that creating lists of people with alleged similar characteristics “usually produces mismatches”, which may end up in wrongful arrests.

One of the supposed safeguards would be that “PNR data may only be used for the purpose of fighting serious crime and terrorist offences”. It’s likely that this safeguard won’t be respected in reality. The “European Arrest Warrant”, another EU scheme whereby countries decided to extradite their own nationals to other EU states via a very simple procedure, was also supposed to be limited to these kind of offences. In reality however, European Arrest Warrants have been issued also for minor crimes, as for example theft of a piglet.

Another EU initiative is the Prum Convention, an agreement which allows for the automatic exchange of DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data among EU member states. Already before the attacks in Paris, France has demanded to have fingerprints and facial scans of everyone entering or leaving the EU collected. The EU’s Prum scheme currently has an error rate of 67% in fingerprint matching, due to the fact that it only requires six fully matching elements, while the UK system requires 10, for example. This was one of the reasons why the UK opted out of it in 2014. The UK Parliament will later this year vote on whether the UK signs back up to it. The UK Home Office has warned that British police risk being overwhelmed with DNA and fingerprint requests from other EU  countries, while there could be an increased risk of innocent Britons being accused of crimes since some EU countries use lower quality DNA matching criteria than the UK. 

Many people would agree storing data can make sense, but only if there are proper democratic checks in place. It can be questioned if Parliaments from other countries will be as keen to monitor how their security services deal with data from non-nationals as they would be when dealing with data from nationals. Whether the European Parliament can be trusted to monitor EU data sharing, I’ll discuss next.

3.      The European Parliament isn’t an effective check on any future EU security apparatus 

The European Parliament has been complicating handing over data to the US, voting down the “SWIFT” deal on banking data transfers to the US, while applauding a recent ECJ ruling against handing over consumer data to the US through the “Safe Harbour” deal. Still, the impression remains that for some of them this may have been more inspired by anti-American instincts than a genuine concern for privacy, given that the same assembly’s Civil Liberties and Justice Committee approved a draft for PNR only in July, while also having rubber stamped the data retention directive, as discussed.

Instead of standing up for civil liberties, some of the nominally “liberal” MEPs seem to be keen to create a police apparatus at the EU level, with Swedish MEPs Cecilia Wikström and Jasenko Selimovic now calling for a “European FBI”. That’s coming from the “liberal” ALDE faction, which supposedly cares about civil liberties.

Already now there is a whole range of EU intelligence services, which face little democratic supervision, something which has been criticised by former independent Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser, without much result however. Whereas Europol and Frontex are subject to some parliamentary oversight, the Intelligence Analysis Centre (IntCen), the Satellite Centre (SatCen), the Intelligence Directorate (IntDir) and the Situation Room are not. They are part of the European External Action Service (the EU’s Foreign Ministry), and do not even disclose their budget. When the European Parliament’s Budget Committee had the chance to force them to disclose their budgets, the Committee declined to do so, according to Ehrenhauser, who added that the creation of IntCen’s predecessor, “SitCen”, even violated EU Treaty Law.  Instead of at least scrutinizing the finances of these embryonic secret services, MEPs prefer to call for giving them more powers instead, something the EU Commission now also wants, demanding to create “a European CIA”. This despite the fact that IntCen has been criticized for the quality of its reports, as Member State officials are quoted saying “they receive the same level of information and analysis but faster through magazines (e.g. Time, the Economist, Newsweek) or open source news providers."

To those having watched the European Parliament more closely, this all won’t come as a surprise. As opposed to more critical member states such as the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden, the institution happily approves the EU’s spending of 144 billion euro every year, despite the stringent criticism of the EU’s own accounting body, the EU Court of Auditors. Is this an institution which could be trusted to stand up against a security apparatus? Asking the question is providing the answer.

4.      Assuming all EU member states have the same level of justice protection can lead to serious miscarriages of justice, as witnessed by the experience of the European Arrest Warrant

The “European Arrest Warrant, pushed through right after 9-11 by the Belgian EU presidency, basically forces states to extradite their own citizens if asked to do so. The problem is that it falsely assumes that all member states of the European Union offer the same standards of legal protection and equally fair trials – a thought so naïve it can only be taken serious in Brussels.

The reality unfortunately looks different: when a British citizen was extradited to Portugal for a crime allegedly committed, his trial over there was described by British judges as “an embarrassment and a violation of his right to a fair trial.” NGOs have expressed concern about the EAW being used to punish petty crimes instead of fighting terrorism or cross-border crime. Particularly Poland has drawn criticism for its excessive use of European Arrest Warrants, having issued thousands more Warrants than any other country.

Making the whole thing even more bizarre, one can be extradited in another EU member state for something which doesn’t even constitute a crime in one’s home state, something Austrian cartoonist Gerhard Haderer  had to learn the hard way. In 2005, he was convicted to a six month sentence in Greece, after depicting Christ as a binge-drinking friend of Jimi Hendrix, surfing naked while high on cannabis. The artist didn't even know that his book, The Life of Jesus, had been published in Greece until he received a summons to appear in court in Athens. In the end, only an appeal to the Greek Supreme Court saved him from ending up in a Greek jail without having committed a crime. Taking into account the increasing number of “hate speech” laws introduced in various European countries, and the unclear legal status of online commentary, it doesn’t take too much fantasy to imagine some of the dangers.

Another case saw British student Andrew Symeou being extradited to Greece in July 2009 to face charges in connection with the death of a young man at a nightclub on a Greek island, after Symeou had already returned home to the UK. Andrew was extradited despite evidence that the charges were based on statements extracted by Greek police through the violent intimidation of witnesses, who later retracted their statements. He spent over ten months in terrible conditions in a Greek prison, was released on bail but then remained unable to leave Greece. He was finally cleared only months later, four years after the facts. Given that the Greek legal document requesting extradition was flawless, there was no way UK courts could have denied his extradition, apart from perhaps refusing to implement EU rules, something a number of EU countries initially tried.

The human consequences resulting from a misplaced trust of EU member states in each other’s justice systems should carry a warning not to repeat this mistake. Cooperation on justice and police matters isn’t a bad idea in itself, but control over this sensitive policy area should always firmly remain with national democracies.

Pieter Cleppe and Leo Traugott represent independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels


Friday, November 13, 2015

Contribution to Flemish Parliament hearing on TTIP

Here I provide evidence on negotiations for the EU-US trade deal TTIP at a hearing of the Flemish Parliament, noting how reducing already low barriers may still make a big difference, amongst others for European car producers and chemicals. I dismissed claims that “regulatory cooperation” would constrain national regulators, explaining that it would be very hard to agree to make EU and US regulations more coherent. I also pointed out that TTIP is really about anti-discrimination, as it still allows countries to choose to regulate a lot or not, but only bans them from being protectionist, saying: “It will still be possible for France to ban cigarettes, if it likes to. It will only not be allowed to ban American cigarettes”

My contribution at the hearing can be watched from 1:09:40 in:



An assessment of Cameron's proposals to reform the EU

Published on MNI Euro Insight

Yesterday, David Cameron stepped up his efforts to obtain reforms of the European Union, detailing his demands in a letter to EU Council chairman Donald Tusk.

Cameron’s idea is to move the debate from the technical preparatory level to the political arena, so he’ll reach a deal, ideally as soon as possible, which he then can submit to the British people in a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU, to be held no later than 2017. Given the elections in 2017 in France and Germany and as the UK is taking up the EU Council Presidency then, Cameron is keen to host the referendum in 2016. Also, the longer he waits, the more the EU issue will interfere with the struggle within the Conservative Party to succeed Cameron, who’s likely to step down before 2020. A grand deal before Summer 2016 would thus be ideal.

In sum, Cameron and the UK government are demanding three main things. Hereunder I sum up the most important elements:

1.      The UK wants more control over EU decision making:

-          The UK wants to “enhance the role of national parliaments” through “an arrangement where groups of national parliaments, acting together, can stop unwanted legislative proposals”. This could be achieved through an interinstitutional agreement upgrading the current “yellow card” – system. This is a mechanism which allows a number of national parliaments to raise the alarm if they don’t like certain Commission proposals. The mechanism is hardly used, given that the Commission can just ignore these cards, which it has done, but this could change if the EU Commission agrees with the EU member states to treat every “yellow card” or “orange card” issued by - one third or a majority of – national parliaments as a “red card”, meaning it would drop proposals in that case. Interestingly, both the EU Commission and the EPP, the biggest group in the European Parliament, have reacted to Cameron’s letter that to “increase the role of national parliaments” is “feasible”. A big majority of Germans support the idea. The Commission could in theory always break its word, but is unlikely to annoy the UK just for the sake of saving one single piece of legislation. In any case, the arrangement could be written into the EU Treaty at a future occasion. 

-          The UK also wants more control over benefits for EU migrants, demanding EU changes which allow the UK to prescribe “that people coming to Britain from the EU must live here and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing”. There is a lot of support for this in Northern Europe, but legally it’s not so easy to enshrine, because it could be seen as “discrimination”, which is banned under EU law. The definition of “discrimination” however depends on the question whether non-UK citizens are in the same position of UK citizens, who have been contributing in taxation- and from what point they should be considered as “full taxpayers”: after having contributed for 6 months, 2 years or 4 years? It’s all quite arbitrary really. The EU can be flexible about this, however, which was proven by a recent stance by the EU’s top court’s advocate general, while also the UK has said to be flexible and open to solutions. One idea is apparently to also require UK citizens to wait for four years after they’ve reached adulthood. 

-          Unlike what’s often assumed, Cameron is not demanding restrictions on free movement of people, except then for “new members until their economies have converged much more closely with existing Member States”. In any case, it’ll take a while for Serbia, Montenegro or Macedonia to enter the EU.

2.      The UK wants more protection from the EU’s machinery:

-          First of all, this entails a “formal, legally-binding and irreversible” end to Britain’s obligation to work towards an ‘ever closer union’ as set out in the Treaty. According to Bruno Waterfield, the Brussels correspondent of The Times, “language has already been found” on this matter “to ‘allow for different paths of integration for different countries’, now it is just a question of haggling with the French over the use of words.” For those who think this is all symbolic: At least for the new president of the EU Court of Justice, “ever closer union” isn’t just an empty phrase but a guide to interpret the Treaty.

Secondly, the UK wants to make sure the EU’s single market doesn’t break up as a result of Eurozone integration. In practice, one could imagine how British, Polish, Danish or Swedish banks who wouldn’t comply with the Eurozone’s extra regulations for banks, within the framework of its “banking union”, would at some point lose access to the Eurozone market. We’ve already witnessed some tension on that front with the ECB demanding that clearing houses based in the UK or other non-Eurozone countries would have to move inside the Eurozone to continue to do business in euros. Luckily, this was blocked by the EU’s Court of Justice, but the UK wants stronger safeguards.

Cameron has stated: “We do not want to stand in the way of measures Eurozone countries decide to take to secure the long-term future of their currency. But we want to make sure that these changes will respect the integrity of the Single Market, and the legitimate interests of non-Euro members.”

With Open Europe, we’ve suggested that three non-euro states should be able to block EU decision making. This isn’t a complete novelty for the EU, but is along the lines of the EU’s “Ioannina compromise” and an arrangement decided for the European Banking Authority (EBA), where a majority is needed amongst both Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries for a decision to pass. Our solution can be implemented without Treaty change, by writing it into the existing EU voting procedures in the Council of Ministers and via a separate intergovernmental legal agreement. A legal fudge could be found to bridge the time until the next round of Treaty change, at the occasion of a possible new Eurozone treaty, which The Times’ correspondent thinks may be agreed at the end of 2018.

3.      The UK wants the EU to become more an engine of growth, instead of a drag on it

Last but not least, the UK wants a more ambitious push on economic competitiveness consisting of further deepening the single market, cutting red tape and concluding trade deals with other global economies. In particular, Cameron writes:

“For all we have achieved in stemming the flow of new regulations, the burden from existing regulation is still too high. So the United Kingdom would like to see a target to cut the total burden on business. The EU should also do more to fulfil its commitment to the free flow of capital, goods and services. The United Kingdom believes we should bring together all the different proposals, promises and agreements on the Single Market, on trade, and on cutting regulation into a clear long-term commitment to boost the competitiveness and productivity of the European Union and to drive growth and jobs for all.”

It will be relatively easy to get other EU leaders to endorse the principle of the competitiveness agenda, but the question is what concrete progress will be made on top of the reforms initiated already by the EU’s Better Regulation Commissioner, Frans Timmermans. Perhaps a concrete step would be for member states to agree to open up their services markets to each other, a long overdue measure which is only getting more urgent with the arrival of e-commerce. Given that a number of member states, including Germany and France, remain hostile to this, it could happen through a “coalition of the willing”, as we’ve suggested with Open Europe.


Unfortunately, what isn’t on the agenda, is serious EU budget reform, reform of the European Court of Justice, devolving employment policy back to member states and restoring UK judicial control over justice and home affairs laws. Still, it would be a good start to reform of the EU if the UK’s efforts would now lead to a European Union where national parliaments can actually block proposed Commission initiatives, where a possible destruction of the EU’s internal market by Eurozone coordination is being addressed and where a new drive is being given to open up Europe’s services markets. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Don’t dismiss popular concerns about migration if you care about open borders

Published by Newsweek

In Switzerland, the right-wing populist SVP, who’s opposed to mass migration, just scored a big election win, securing a record 29.4% of the vote, up from 26.6% in 2011. The party, which has been depicting immigrants in a very negative way in aggressive campaigns, is an established party of government, but this hasn’t stopped migration. Around a quarter of Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants don’t have citizenship.

This election result should therefore be seen as a strong endorsement for stricter immigration policies. In February 2014, a narrow majority of Swiss already voted in a referendum to limit immigration through quotas. Given that this would violate Switzerland’s deal with the European Union (EU), which includes freedom of movement for EU citizens in exchange for market access for Swiss firms, this triggered negotiations. The EU hasn’t been eager to engage into this, even suggesting the Swiss should vote again. This should be an important lesson of the election result: don’t brush aside citizens’ concerns about migration.

Primarily however, the Swiss result is the fall-out of a changing mood all over Europe regarding immigration. In various European countries, one can witness public opinion swinging between compassion for refugees and concern about how they’ll be integrated.

In neighbouring Austria, the right-wing populist “Freedom Party” secured a record result as well in regional elections in Vienna, coming second but striking a blow to the governing social democrats in their traditional stronghold. After a steady rise in national opinion polls in the last six months, the party would now become Austria’s biggest, if there were elections.

The same thing is happening in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ “Party for Freedom” is also firmly leading opinion polls, while in France, “National Front” leader Marine Le Pen is currently set to obtain most of the votes in the first round of France’s presidential election in 2017, although she’s likely to be beaten in the second round.  In June, these right-wing populist parties furthermore managed to form a political group in the European Parliament, together with Italy's “Northern League” and some other allies. This entitles them to EU-funding.

Also in Scandinavia, voters are increasingly turning to parties critical to mass migration. In elections in Denmark and Finland earlier this year, the “Danish People's Party” and the “Finns Party” each came second, convincing around one fifth of the electorate and even entering government in Finland’s case. It should be noted that these parties are quite moderate really, both being allies of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament. They’re quite different from the “Sweden Democrats”, which carry a history of neo-nazism but have toned down their rhetoric in recent years. They are currently enjoying a major increase in popularity, with some opinion polls estimating they could become the biggest party while doubling their voting share to up to 25% only one year after the 2014 election. This should be seen in the context of Sweden accepting more asylum seekers per capita than any other country in the EU, at least last year. Still, over the last fifteen years, 

Switzerland, Norway and Luxembourg have been welcoming even more immigrants per capita, so proponents of migration should be careful when considering to criticize Swiss voters.
In Central-and Eastern Europe, apart from Hungary or Bulgaria, migration only really has become a hot political topic this year. This is mainly due to an EU decision last month, inspired by Germany, to introduce refugee quotas in an effort to relieve the pressure on countries on the frontline of the migration crisis. At the EU-meeting where it was decided that countries would have to take in a certain number of refugees, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania were outvoted while Finland abstained, something which caused a lot of anger.  Jiří Pospíšil, a former Czech Justice Minister and MEP with the pro-EU TOP09 party described it as “a great defeat for Europe” which would facilitate the rise of anti-EU sentiment.

There is passport-free travel in much of Europe, so one can wonder what the point is of trying to spread out people. In any case, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was behind trying to spread the burden in this way, hoping to be seen to be doing something. Shewould do well not to ignore criticism. Migration is a sensitive issue all over the world and as much as the economic benefits are clear in a globalized economy, it’s also clear that cultural integration hasn’t always been very successful, to put it mildly.

Germany is home to Europe’s biggest economy, so many migrants, including refugees, prefer to go there.  After Merkel was perceived to encourage refugees to come to Germany, declaring there was “no upper limit” for asylum seekers while encouraging Germans to be flexible in dealing with the influx, a policy u-turn followed mid-September, when Germany instated temporary controls at the Austrian border. Before that, Merkel was accused of by the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of her own Christian Democrat CDU, of having made an “unparalleled historical mistake”. The debate still continues. A proposal from one of Germany’s police union chiefs to build a fence along the border with Austria is unlikely to be taken up, but at this point it is by no means guaranteed that the passport-free Schengen arrangement, a key achievement of European cooperation, will survive in case the refugee crisis escalates further.

Those who really care about the right to migrate and the right to seek refugee should therefore take popular unrest about this very serious. Are there alternatives to the current improvisation in policy? Australia’s approach to guard its sea border by diverting boats with refugees to a third country may not be perfect but it has ended drownings at sea, at least on record. An out-of-the-box alternative is to create a functioning city outside of richer countries for refugees to go to, where they can develop their lives. This may sound ambitious, but it recognizes that the refugee problem is likely to persist and that there is insufficient popular support to welcome everyone. In any case, it will only be possible to maintain support for a world with relatively open borders if alternative solutions are being considered.




Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What to make of the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement?

Published on Open Europe's blog

To the suprise of many, there is now likely to be a Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement thanks to a petition signed by over 450,000 people. But what is it really about?

A campaign for a non-binding Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine has garnered almost half a million signatures over six weeks, well above the threshold of 300,000 set for this newly created direct democracy tool for Dutch citizens which only entered into force at the beginning of July. The Dutch government had already signaled that if the threshold were met the referendum will take place in Spring 2016, which coincides with the Netherlands’ holding the EU’s rotating Presidency in the first half of the year.

Who is behind the referendum campaign?

The organisors of the referendum are the eurosceptic think-tank Forum for Democracy, the eurosceptic news website Geenstijl.nl (which gained notoriety for exposing the practice of MEPs signing in to claim their daily allowance before sodding off) and Burgercomité EU, the campaign for a full referendum on EU membership. Geert Wilders, the leader of the populist anti-EU and anti-immigration PVV party which is currently leading in the opinion polls has been an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign, although the organisers have done their best to keep their distance from him and party politics in general.

Is this a pro-Putin, anti-Ukrainian campaign?

The VVD, the main party in the Dutch coalition, has dubbed the organisers of the initiative as “friends of Putin”, a sensitive accusation in the wake of the shooting down of flight MH17 last year. The question of the EU’s relations with both Russia and Ukraine has been a factor in the campaign; the Association Agreement is unpopular some quarters as there are fears Ukraine will benefit from greater financial support from Dutch taxpayers and that the move to remove visa requirements for Ukrainians will lead to greater immigration from that country.  There are also concerns that the deal effectively commits the Netherlands to side with Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.
However, that said, this should first and foremost be seen as a proxy for many Dutch citizens’ desire for a broader debate about the EU and the direction it is heading in. Given that a full on referendum about EU membership is explicitly excluded in the legislation establishing the referendum mechanism, campaigners latched onto the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement as the best option for forcing the debate. They needed a piece of EU legislation which was yet to come into force and upon which they could hang their broader concerns, this agreement seemed to fit the bill. Thierry Baudet, an author and academic who launched the Forum for Democracy has said that “We will put the question of the EU on the agenda with a broad focus on all aspects of the EU.” More generally, it is also reflective of the wider anti-establishment mood that is sweeping across much of Europe.

Will the result be respected, given that it’s non-binding?

The Dutch parliament has already approved the deal, but under the new law it will have to return to the issue and hold a second vote – assuming turnout exceeds 30%. Given that this is the first referendum of its kind its hard to predict the turnout, but logically if the idea that this is proxy vote for broader concerns around the EU takes hold then it seems entirely possible the threshold could be reached (equally if it doesn’t it is hard to imagine 30% turning out just to vote on the Association Agreement). Either way, the Association Agreement will not enter into force on January 1st 2016 as originally planned.

There has to date been no specific polling on the Association Agreement, but a recent poll found 73% of Dutch voters opposed full EU membership for Ukraine at this moment in time. A very different proposition, but it may provide some indication of concerns about deeper links with Ukriane. If voters reject the Agreement, the VVD has already declared that its “stance won’t change”. However, the other governing coalition party, the centre-left PvdA, has refused to specify how they would act in such circumstances. The situation also presents a big challenge for the liberal, pro-EU D66 party which has supported a greater role for direct democracy but which has opposed the referendum campaign. Indeed Geenstijl actively used D66 leader Alexander Pechtold’s claim that “Europe is too complex to discuss in a referendum” as a means of boosting support for the referendum.
Meanwhile, the centre-right CDA party which supports the Agreement has said that “if we’re overruled [by the people], we need to know our place.” There is a real risk therefore that if the voters reject the Agreement, Dutch MPs will feel compelled to do likewise with huge consequences for the EU’s policy towards the Ukraine and its relations with its neighbours more broadly. An EU diplomat told The Times: “If the Dutch vote No, it will be another nightmare.”

What are the wider implications?

In many ways, the demand for another referendum on the EU is rooted in the failure of the Dutch and EU establishment to respond adequately to the rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 given that it was imposed via the backdoor in the form of the Lisbon Treaty. In fairness, the Dutch have done more than most governments to address public concerns about the extent of the EU’s powers but it is clear that this has not been sufficient for much of the Dutch public.

With the debate likely to stray well beyond the Association Agreement, given the proximity of the Dutch referendum to the upcoming UK referendum, this could also turn out to be an unexpected boon for the UK by demonstrating that it is far from the only member state in which much of the public has concerns over the direction the EU is heading in and by prompting wider public discourse on the EU in another major member state. This could in turn help to generate momentum for the kind of EU reform the UK is pushing for.