Monday, 25 July 2016

EU: The 'Politics of Population'

Last May, the European Commission published its input. with the motivational title “An Open and Secure Europe: Making it Happen,” the document supposed to pave the way for a comprehensive strategy on fostering a shared commitment to a balance between long- and short-term priorities.

Then, in June of the same year, European Union leaders wrote a new five-year program for justice and home affairs. They planned a short, snappy vision focused on migration and asylum policy. Such intentions were welcome, not least in the European Union’s East. There, governments are acutely worried about migration from East to West—their own nationals to Western Europe, Ukrainians to Central Europe. A little clarity in European Union policy would go a long way.

Of course, one can snigger at these technocratic clichés. But the commission’s draft, with its blithe statements about “competing for high-skilled migrants” and “combating the demographic decline,” has been dangerously out of step with the mood both at home and abroad. The trouble is not so much the European Union’s diagnosis of the challenges. It is its language of technocratic complacence.

In Europe, immigration has begun irritating even the professional classes. A global rise in education and wage levels means that newcomers are creating competition for native workers even in the elastic high-skilled labor market. Middle-class Europeans with progressive views about immigrant cleaners, babysitters, and manual workers are now feeling the pinch.

If it were not for immigration, Britain would have not voted to leave the European Union, at first place. Even after voting leave, Britain's irritation on immigration, pushes for, as  a Brexit plan to secure the deal on European Union single market, a 7 years emergency brake on the free movement. Although the plan will prove highly controversial in many member states, including France, Poland and other central and eastern European nations, it does highlight the challenge on European Union migration policy.

Meanwhile, abroad, the EU is being painted as moribund and effete. The commission may chirpily refer to “demographic decline” as a technocratic problem to be overcome by immigration. For the rest of the world, however, it is further proof that the EU is in a nosedive that can’t be reversed: the EU needs your kids because it’s not producing its own.

In short, the EU must get used to making migration policy in a multipolar age—where the bloc’s relative attractiveness and prosperity are in decline, other migration destinations are popping up, and European values no longer hold their old certainties and attraction.

But the most worrying feature of this new world is that EU-led discussions in the United Nations or the International Organization for Migration about “mobility” are slowly being eclipsed by a more static and zero sum worldview, setting the tone for some kind of new politics of population. Two global developments explain this shift.

The first is the return of the state. A decade ago, in an age of Western supremacy, the EU was justified in treating migration as a post-national phenomenon—other states did not matter much, and non-state actors were in fashion. But now, new powers are on the rise, and they are worried about their demographic health. Scared of tipping into the middle-income trap, they are showing a real preoccupation with the size and health of their populations.

The second development has been a worldwide shift of focus away from immigration and toward questions of emigration, brain drain, and immobility. This marks the declining influence of Western “receiving” countries and the growing power of “sending” countries. Those in the second group are nervous about the effects of mobility on their otherwise static populations. So-called “trapped populations” are now in the limelight—the immobile majority angrily left behind to deal with domestic problems.

The shift of political influence to less genteel parts of the world has spawned a brutal political environment. Experts warn that international institutions like the UN’s refugee agency could regress to their original function of controlling people flows for their biggest sponsors. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grabs are a sign of the times. Rather than passively opening its borders to a mobile population, Russia is moving its borders to encompass a static population.

So when the European Commission talks about competing for workers, it needs to know just how bruising that competition might be, and how far some countries may go to dissuade their brightest from leaving for Europe. And when it broaches the subject of integrating immigrants, the commission needs to recognize that this may now be deemed not so much progressive as aggressive.

Still, if EU leaders want to adapt to this new politics of population, they can take heart. The clue is in the name: this is about politics. At present, it is Western Europeans’ fixed ideas of immigration that are leading to the artificial polarization between “sending” and “receiving” countries, even as the real distinctions between them blur.

To make this mental shift, Western nations like Britain or France must start listening to the EU’s own sending countries—Poland or Romania or Bulgaria. These Eastern states echo global concerns about population. And they are tired of Western European countries harping on about “benefit tourism” or the burdens of immigration. The EU’s new home affairs program needs to be written in its East.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Investigative Journalist
Political Analyst/Writer
World Affairs Expert