European Elections 2019 and Migration: What Comes Next?

European elections
Plenary session Week 3 2017 in Strasbourg Election of the President of the European Parliament

After a long and highly heated electoral campaign, the 2019 European [Parliament] elections are finally over. As the gains for anti-immigrant and far-right parties are receiving considerable media attention, most of the analysts tend to conclude that a tougher turn on EU migration policies should be expected. Is that the case for real? I would disagree.

First, the real clash on migration in the EU corridors is not between far-right groups and progressives but rather between the North and the South or, perhaps more accurately, between the EU mainland and its periphery. Not everyone in the EU agrees on what the real “migration question” is and this is not going to change. Back in 2014, as a young graduate student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, I attended an academic event on “migration”. Coming from Athens, where dozens of asylum seekers from Africa and Asia had already been sleeping rough, I was expecting a discussion about migrants and asylum seekers entering the EU from neighboring continents. I was startled to realize that the event was about Polish, Romanian, and Bulgarian citizens moving legally—as EU citizens—to northern countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK.

Before the geopolitical Big Bang of the Arab Spring, the migration debate in the European Union focused primarily on a cost-benefit assessment of the gradual eastern enlargement in the 2000s. Emerging from authoritarian regimes, the incoming states were less developed economically, and a massive intra-European flow of labour migrants was seen by the older members as both an opportunity and a threat [to their economy]. According to official figures provided by Eurostat, 14.3 million citizens of the EU-28 lived in a different EU Member State on 1 January 2014. The growing number of EU working migrants has bolstered euro-scepticism around the continent which regularly made the headlines in prosperous EU countries such as the United Kingdom. While Brexit was kindled to a great extent by the intra-EU migration question, southern countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece were struggling to cope with the administrative burden ensuing from the migrant flow from third states, pressuring for reforms towards a more balanced distribution of third-state migrants among the EU-28.

Second, the clash between EU mainland and the EU periphery makes it difficult for far-right groups to find some common space and act as a coherent political group. For example, far-right groups in Italy oppose rescue operations at sea while the far-right in Hungary repugns the refugee relocation scheme under the EU-Turkey deal. Matteo Salvini considers the redistribution of migrants and asylum seekers as essential while Victor Orban, the authoritarian leader of Hungary, strongly opposes any newcomers in his country. By failing to act together, far-right groups will remain marginalized in the new European Parliament despite their aggregate might, exactly as it was the case in the outgoing European Parliament.

Third, long before the recent European elections, a major conservative shift on migration policies was already observed across the EU. Arguably, the highly controversial EU-Turkey deal was the very first outcome of this shift. While the European Union has arisen as the most dominant provider of humanitarian aid in northern Africa and the Middle East, most of the EU countries remain very reluctant when it comes to migrant reception and even more so when it comes to migrant integration. The political cost of sending money in Syria is significantly smaller than hosting Syrian asylum seekers in the country. Unsurprisingly, the EU-Turkey deal is being widely praised by conservative governments despite the fact that its provisions on relocation was never fully implemented.

Fourth, the biggest challenge on the road to a common EU migration policy is the tendency of strong countries like Germany to address issues such as the repatriation of refugees and returning migrants through bilateral agreements rather than pan-European deals. For example, a few months before the 2017 German federal election, an agreement between the German and Greek governments reportedly introduced a monthly cap to the number of people transferred from Greece to Germany under the Dublin Regulation. This kind of informal bilateral agreements is more than telling for the real intentions of stronger EU members, while they substantially undermine EU values.

Fifth, the European Parliament might be more influential than ever, yet the big decisions are still made by the European Council, consisting of the national leaders of the EU member states. While it is impossible for a far-right coalition to obtain a majority in the European Parliament, things are more complicated in the European Council. Although decisions on migration may be validly taken under qualified majority voting, national leaders see to achieving unanimity under a purely intergovernmental model. It is usually on the path to unanimity that the far-right effect kicks in as forcefully as ever, since national leaders are inclined to take their own national political agenda under consideration.

To sum up, it would be risky to assume that far-right gains in the recent European elections will have a direct effect on shaping a common EU migration policy. The rise of far-right has been long-awaited in Brussels and as a result a conservative shift was already observed. Migration remains a highly sensitive issue across the political sphere and it would remain so, even if the far-right was not as boisterous. For example, the significant win of the social democrats in Danish elections was only after they had shifted towards adopting a much tougher anti-immigration stance, including highly controversial policy proposals like calling for a cap on non-Western migrants.

Such developments are not unknown to the theory. Indeed, various aspects of migration are widely considered “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber 1973; Durant & Legge 2006) and are also frequently included in the category of “intractable policy controversies”, a term which describes disputes which are immune to resolution by appeal to facts (Rein & Schön 1994). This is likely to be the case also in the 2019-2024 term of the EU institutions. EU migration policies will be more affected by the volume of the migrant influx than by political beliefs of the current EU actors. The minimum reaction should be expected in the case of a new refugee crisis, while the maximum reluctance to reform migration policies will not be surprising if the issue is not popular anymore. Sweeping things under the rug has been one of the most persistent political traits in a continent as old as migration itself.