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Migrants, Europe Needs Vision, not Tactics

The compromise reached by the European Council was merely tactical, aimed at avoiding a failure, rather than finding a real, shared solution

by Sergio Salvatore - the European Institute of Cultural Analysis for Policy (EICAP)

Migranti attraversano il Mediterraneo (credits: UNHCR).

Last 28th and 29th June there was an important political meeting of the European Council, focusing on migration. The Council was held in a very polarized and bewildering scenario. Despite many observers fully expecting it to fail, it was able to reach an agreement, but a real, shared solution is still faraway

Last 28th and 29th June there was an important political meeting of the European Council – i.e. the European Union’s body comprising the 28 member states’ heads of government. The core of the meeting agenda was migration.

The Council was held in a very polarized and bewildering scenario. On the one side, there was Italy, which called for the recognition of the tenet that migrants arriving on the soil of any European country actually arrive in Europe and therefore have to be the responsibility of the whole of Europe, rather than of the single state. This claim implies a radical overriding of the current framework (i.e. the so-called Dublin regulation, which states that migrants have to be handled by the country where they arrive), in the direction of compulsory distribution of migrants among EU member states regardless of the country of entrance. On the other side there were the countries not exposed to the migration fluxes that are willing to provide economic and political support to Italy and other Southern countries, but are totally unwilling to assume actual co-responsibility (i.e. to accept the rule of compulsory quotas of distribution). A further, and very important, factor in making positions more inflexible was Germany’s internal political situation – Prime Minister Angela Merkel had to deal with the position of her Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, threatening to bring down the government if she did not introduce harsher migrant policies (e.g. restriction on migrants’ onward movements).

Despite many observers fully expecting it to fail, the Council was able to reach an agreement. Yet the compromise was merely tactical, aimed at avoiding a failure, rather than at finding solutions. On the one hand, Italy was given a sop in response to its call for involvement of the other EU members; however, such co-responsibility will have to be “on a voluntary basis”, thus “without prejudice to the Dublin reform”, namely the framework strongly defended by the Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia), unwilling to hear a single word even just suggesting the idea of compulsory involvement of their countries. On the other hand, Germany obtained quite a strong declaration against the movements of asylum seekers among EU countries (“secondary movements of asylum seekers between Member States risk jeopardising the integrity of the Common European Asylum System and the Schengen acquis”), very much needed by Merkel in order to save her government. In short, the Council managed to provide a new version of the Dodo Bird verdict – Everyone has won and all must have prizes.

Unfortunately, Europe is not Wonderland. Just the days after new tensions and polemics highlighted how fragile and only apparent the compromise was – Italy claimed with even more emphasis the decision to refuse to open their ports to ONG boats carrying migrants saved from the sea; Merkel got an agreement with Seehofer on the basis of a more rigid policy of resettlement and relocation of migrants coming from other EU states; as result of that, Austria expressed the intention to empower frontiers controls in order to avoid the entrance of migrants into its territory. In sum, the brief-breath solution found by the Council does not only appear with any evidence to be unable to face with the actual problems; rather, it contributes to make them even harder, triggering an enforcement of both external and internal boundaries. And this means to make even more the Mediterranean Sea a cemetery, as consequence of constraints put on ONGs activity of succours at sea (these constraints are due to the fact that people saved by ONG are migrants that then have to be hosted) as well as to run quickly toward the dissolution of the Schengen framework, namely of the idea – central for the European identity – of no boundaries inside EU.

In the migration affair Europe seems to have lost her soul –  recognition of the dignity of the person, human rights, tolerance, welcoming have never been so empty words as now. Migrants (their life, their rights to be saved, cured, welcomed, to move freely, to have projects) do not exist for European policies – what matters are the migration fluxes and how to contrast them. And with her soul what is fading is the very project of the EU as an unitary (anthropological, and therefore) political Entity, substituted by the less ambitious practice of it as a space of regulated cooperation among self-contained national subjects – in that the ultra-right, populist, sovereignism visions have already won.

Actually, this cannot but be so, insofar as European institutions, and policy-makers that interpret them, strive to search solutions within the given political and cultural framework. In that scenario only surface, short-breath, tactic compromises aimed at reducing the damage are possible; and the more this approach is performed, the less time remain to find an exit strategy, before it is too late.

Needless to say, this approach is not a matter of bad willing. The very central issue is that politics and therefore institutions are nowadays prisoners of the public opinion, of a public opinion that is strongly “affectivised”, namely that expresses preferences and commitments on the grounds of emotionally polarized beliefs and attitudes. The recent Re.Cri.Re. analysis of the European societies’ cultural milieu has highlighted at what extent European societies are crossed and shaped by a form of identity construction based on the enemization of otherness– more and more people recognize to be part of their community thanks to and in the terms of sharing a common enemy. Accordingly, if there were not migration, it should have been invented; and actually this is what is happening: the very fact that migration is the core issue of the European political agenda is the signal of the fact that policy-making has lost its autonomy and just reflects the emotions crossing societies; reality tells a very different story – with respect to 2015, fluxes are reduced by 95%; so, migration is not a relevant problem in this moment in Europe.

The only exit way is to give back autonomy to policy-making and through it to institutions. Policies should be designed on the grounds of the society’s demands, yet for elaborating and promoting their development, rather than just for acting them. But this means to have the interpretative and methodological devices required to do that; lacking them, institutions cannot but run behind and mirror what people feel and believe, and this is even more true in times where feelings and believes are strongly polarized.

Thus a twofold effort is required in order to counteract the slow but inexorable dissolution of the EU project. On the one hand, social and political scientists have to provides the conceptual and methodological instruments to re-think policy-making and to adjust it to the current scenario of deep decoupling between institutions and societies. On the other hand, a new vision of EU has to be elaborated and committed, based on the recognition of the fact that where there is no imagination of the future and recognition of the others’ reason, there is not policy, then not civilization.

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