Ingrid Shikova: Migration is a test for EU unity

The burning question is whether Europe of solidarity should be sacrificed in the name of Europe of security

If Member States, due to differences in interests and public attitudes, fail to achieve an effective common response in the areas of freedom of movement, migration, and asylum provision, we cannot expect a stronger and more stable EU. And this plays right into the hands of populists, says Ingrid Shikova, professor in EU policies, in an interview for Europost.

Ms Shikova, the latest European Council was a prime illustration of the great tensions existing in the bloc despite the participants' attempts to iron out differences. It seems that the topic of illegal migrants, whose number is actually decreasing, is just triggering the political crisis while the underlying reasons run much deeper. What are those core problems in your view?

The EU is encountering difficulties in tackling the migration problem because it is a politically very sensitive matter. Traditionally, the EU practice is to address political problems gradually by going through extensive technocratic discussions and reaching a mutually acceptable compromise and consensus. In this case, however, this strategy is not that suitable, both because of the dynamic nature of the migration crisis and because of the public's and political parties' strong awareness of this problem. It is natural for party and government leaders to approach this issue in the context provided by national elections and current public attitudes, which hinders productive European-level discussions and finding a working EU solution. EU leaders realise that everything that happened at the European Council at the end of June had more to do with solving problems in the German, and more precisely the Bavarian, domestic policy in light of the upcoming autumn elections there. Let us also not forget that the European Parliament elections are in a little less than a year. Add to the political sensitivity towards the migration crisis its asymmetrical nature, meaning that it has varying degrees of impact on countries, and it becomes obvious that the arguments between Member States and the difficulties in finding common solutions in this particular sphere will persist.

Were the populists of the Visegrad Group and the pushy new leaders of Italy the ones who presented a hurdle to reaching a consensus on the Dublin Regulation?

EU Member States are essentially in different situations when it comes to the migration crisis and they therefore have different interests - from countries where migrants enter Europe and in whose interest it is for the Dublin Regulation restrictions to be scrapped, to transit countries who look to be able to let immigrants pass to other countries as quickly as possible, and the so-called “desired destination” countries which insist on all Member States sharing the burden of the migrant inflow. Public attitudes towards migration also differ from one Member State to another. They are friendlier in the countries of western and northern Europe where there are large immigrant communities already, whereas attitudes are more unwelcoming in central and eastern Europe where countries are less prepared to receive large waves of refugees. These differences are observed even in the public attitudes towards the migration crisis in eastern and western Germany. In many counties the public is much more concerned about the risks entailed in the large influx of migrants, the amount of public spending it will require, and the challenges to integrating these people in European society. Despite some economists' and politicians' claims that the large number of immigrants will help the economic growth in countries facing serious demographic problems, the potential risks to the social and educational systems of countries receiving many refugees are not to be underestimated. Populists are able to take advantage of various public attitudes.

Don't you think that those same populists will try to sow even more division in the EU with the European Parliament elections next year drawing closer?

Of course they will, and they will mainly use the migrant problem. The difficulty of creating and adhering to a common migration policy is a huge test to the European project's future. If Member States, due to differences in interests and public attitudes, fail to achieve an effective common response in the areas of freedom of movement, migration, and asylum provision, we cannot expect a stronger and more stable EU. And this plays right into the hands of populists. It is highly likely that the migrant flow towards Europe persists, albeit not with the same intensity, for many years, even decades, which would require the development of a reliable common strategy and, most of all, political will and effort.

Populism feeds into Euroscepticism, does it not?

The “Orban formula”, for example, is based on a staunch defence of national sovereignty garnered with economic populism and social conservatism. All of this is accompanied by a steady diet of planting mistrust towards European institutions and condemnation of the “liberal elites, greedy bankers and out-of-control media”. Populist parties in Europe are prepared to use the “Orban formula” and even spice it up with their own national elements ahead of the European Parliament elections.

It would seem that common decisions in the EU are much more dependent on national interests and domestic attitudes than expected. Does this not pose a serious problem?

Common decisions have always been dependent on national interests and public attitudes in Member States. Let me remind the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, when he was still prime minister of Luxembourg: “We all know what we should do but we do not know how to win elections if we do it.” In fact, elections in any Member State, be it the smallest or the biggest, have not only national but also significant European implications. The EU agenda is full of burning hot-potato questions - coping with the high youth unemployment rate in some countries, the Eurozone reform, the future of the EU framework, relations with the US, border protection, common defence, etc. All decisions on these matters are dependent on national interests. Member States have individual views on their own contribution and motivation to engage in European integration. The success of that process over the past decades comes from the participating countries' ability to overcome the differences in their interests, to bridge stances and find compromises.

Do you anticipate that the huge battle over the next EU budget will draw the various camps further apart?

The battle over the EU budget is just starting, and we should be aware that whenever money is involved harmony is hard to find. There are many questions and disagreements. The important thing is what the EU sets as it goals and how Member States support these goals and priorities in the negotiation of the next Multiannual Financial Framework. At this stage of talks, the impression is of an increasingly repeated mantra: “doing more with less”. Does Europe of solidarity need to be sacrificed in the name of Europe of defence and security - this is the question that will be increasingly discussed. It is widely known that the UK's exit from the bloc will deprive the annual EU budget of €12-13bn in revenue. The need to plug this gap, however, seems inevitable because the tasks that require EU-level solutions are growing in number - security, defence, border control, combating terrorism. There is still need for cohesion policies, improvement of competitiveness, support for farmers, and stabilisation of the Economic and Monetary Union, but also assisting Eurozone candidate countries in their preparation for the transition.

Is there a chance for fair distribution?

Making the distinction between countries net contributors and countries net recipients and highlighting it, done especially by populists, creates difficulties in the discussion and adoption of the Multiannual Financial Framework. Normally, the question of the so-called “juste retour” (fair return) pops up - in other words, the focus is shifted towards how much of the money a particular country has contributed ultimately comes back to it via EU programmes and funds. A number of factors, however, are overlooked - like the benefits for more affluent and competitive countries that stem from the opportunity to operate freely in the single market, as well as the fact that part of the money provided under the structural funds is spent on the delivery of goods from those same competitive countries. This begs the legitimate question: do only countries receiving money from the structural funds benefit from the assistance or is the benefit shared with those who are net contributors to the EU budget? All of this should be explained to citizens so that populist assertions like the one that the south is living on the back of the north cannot gain traction.

Who is in the opposing camps?

The idea of a larger EU budget and bigger national contributions is supported mainly by the countries of central and eastern Europe. Spain has also expressed willingness to back a larger budget. This enthusiasm for a larger Multiannual Financial Framework and contributions is explained by these countries' desire to preserve the Common Agricultural Policy and the Cohesion Policy. Germany and France are also prepared to increase their contributions and support a larger EU budget, but Angela Merkel was clear that - even then - “bureaucratic policies” would have to be cut down, referring to the Common Agricultural Policy. Another group of countries, consisting of Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, are adamantly against increasing the EU budget. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's stance is that the EU budget should not be increased following the UK's exit but rather the opposite, and that there will be enough money for the new priorities if it is “modernised”. The arguments surrounding the budget will inevitably end in a compromise, as they always have. The question is when? The call for the Multiannual Financial Framework to be adopted before the European Parliament elections in May 2019 is unlikely to be satisfied, even without the UK being involved in the negotiations. And yet the impossible might happen; it would be great if the fighting ends before the elections. First, it would send a positive signal that the EU is strong and united enough to make the necessary decisions. Second, it would allow the technical time for the new programmes to be prepared, and so they would be launched without delay. Let us not forget that the budget reflects the EU policies, it is not mere accounting for revenues and expenditures. The budget decisions will determine what kind of Europe we can expect in the future. In the case of the EU budget, the following famous expression applies: “Do not tell me about your priorities. Tell me what you spend your money on, and I will tell you what your priorities are.”

These internal EU squabbles lessen the chances of Western Balkan countries joining the bloc in the foreseeable future. How do you interpret the EU leaders' decision to offer Albania and Macedonia as late as next year a launching point for their negotiations?

The Balkans have always been a subject of geopolitical interests. Today, the competition for establishing a sphere of influence in the region is still very much alive. The tentative march of the Western Balkan countries towards full membership of the EU and the lack of clarity as to how likely it is to happen in the foreseeable future provide room for manoeuvring for those who want to play their own game and expand their influence in this part of Europe. Strengthening relations between the EU and the Western Balkan countries is crucial not only to the latter's future but the future of Europe as well. In order for those countries to enjoy stability and development, to push forward with democratic and economic reforms, the door to the EU for them should be wide open and not just slightly. The moment they will walk through the open door will depend on each country's willingness for rapprochement, on the implementation of necessary reforms and on their level of readiness to handle EU membership. In this challenging process the EU actions should rest on three pillars - predictability, trust, and delivering on given promises. I was hoping for a more categorical decision, especially regarding Macedonia. But as I said earlier, domestic attitudes are very important to leaders and with the looming European Parliament elections this was the second-best decision. Unfortunately, it creates a sense of protracting and is unlikely to provide the desired impulse for the realisation of reforms and so ultimately creates favourable conditions for other parties to assert their influence. The instability in the region could lead to certain social, economic and political processes, to postponing and even scratching of EU membership as an option for the Western Balkan countries. This would mean insecurity and more tension across Europe. Much stronger efforts should be made to convince the EU citizens in the logic of and need for EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans.

  

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Ingrid Shikova is professor at the European Studies Department of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. She has served as head of the European Studies Centre and the Information Centre of the European Union in Bulgaria. Shikova has also worked as adviser at the Representation of the European Commission in Sofia. She is a member of the international network of lecturers Team Europe, as well as the Scientific Council of the International Centre for European Education (Centre international de formation europeenne) in Nice, France. She has numerous publications on European integration issues and has been awarded the honorary blue ribbon insignia of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.

 

 

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