Reforming Schengen is the wrong response to the Lampedusa crisis

Tito Boeri

29 April 2011

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Lampedusa is a beautiful island closer to North Africa than to Sicily. In the last two months it has been flooded with migrants, mostly coming from Tunisia. The preliminary count is 28,000 arrivals on an island where no more than 5,000 people normally live. It is clearly transit migration. The planned destination of immigrants is often thousands of miles away, in France, Germany or in the Nordics. Migrants come whatever the weather and boat conditions, risking their lives in crossing the 70 miles separating the coast of North Africa from the small harbour of Lampedusa. Indeed reportedly almost 250 illegal migrants died in the crossing.

This is not the first time that a European country has been targeted by waves of migrants. After the crisis in the Balkans, more than 100,000 refugees from Kosovo sought asylum in Macedonia, and the humanitarian burden was shared, involving primarily Germany, Norway and Turkey. Three factors make this crisis different.

  • First, it targets a relatively rich EU country rather than a poor country like Macedonia.
  • Second, it occurs in the aftermath of the most severe recession of the postwar period, with double-digit unemployment rates in Southern Europe, the favourite destination of illegal migrants in the last 15 years.
  • Third, only very few of those who get to Lampedusa apply for asylum. Their motivation is to escape from poverty before escaping from dictatorships. Indeed, some of the countries these people once lived in are turning their backs on autocratic regimes.

The Italian government has requested EU involvement, in terms of a burden-sharing operation, from the very start of the Lampedusa crisis. This request has been met with scepticism from Member States like Germany that are providing refugee status to seven times as many people as Italy in proportion to the resident populations. It was also challenged by French President Sarkozy, fearing a mass inflow of illegal migrants. French authorities went as far as to block a train from Ventimiglia to prevent migrants – who had meanwhile received a temporary residence permit from Italy – from crossing the border as envisaged by the Schengen agreements.

In response to a letter from Berlusconi and Sarkozy, the European Commission is working on a reform of the Schengen agreements whose contents will be disclosed on 4 May. It is anticipated that it will allow for a “temporary suspension” of the free mobility of people from a country of the Schengen area in “exceptional circumstances”, notably when it is targeted by large waves of illegal migrants and asylum seekers. This “reform” could mark a first step towards dismantling the Schengen agreements altogether just while the EU badly needs more mobility of its citizens to restore growth. One out of 200 EU citizens change residence every year, compared to 7 out of 100 non-EU citizens and 5 out of 100 in the US. At the same time, cross-country unemployment differentials are much larger in Europe than across US states. Thus, Europe could benefit much more than the US from a stronger mobility and reallocation of its workforce from high to low unemployment areas. Moreover, the Schengen agreements have a very important role to play in shaping a European identity, hence strengthening co-operation in crucial areas, such as defence, foreign policy, and environmental policies.

Lampedusa is actually telling us that there is no alternative to a coordinated migration policy at the EU level. All the actions taken so far by individual governments, from the Italian, the French and the German have just made things worse. All the blunt statements of national politicians about closing the doors to this new wave of immigrants have only been a display of impotence, revealing that national governments cannot do anything about it.

People living in countries with incomes per capita which are one-tenth of those of the poorest EU country, who are planning to migrate, cannot be discouraged by the nasty face of a politician, especially when these very same politicians in the past granted migration amnesties. Nor does it make sense to promise a reward to those staying at home. These people did not hesitate in risking their life to cross into Europe, which is certainly much more valuable than the €1,500 offered by Sarkozy and the Italian Foreign Minister Frattini as a reward for turning back.

A divided Europe has no chance to induce gradualism in these flows, which is the only thing that realistic migration policies can do. Actually, a Europe divided in migration policy and willing to have a common internal labour market is bound to experience much larger illegal flows than a Europe coordinating its policies towards migrants.

The issue is that the southern borders of the EU are those of countries that are no longer the favourite destination of migrants. Spain is in the middle of the worst unemployment crisis of its Republican history and its construction sector, the key provider of jobs to migrants, is drastically downscaling. Italy is also experiencing (when account is made of short-time work) two-digit unemployment rates and, although it did not experience a housing bust, its construction sector is shrinking, together with agriculture, another typical source of jobs for the unskilled migrants from North-Africa. Greece is bound to experience a much longer recession than any other country in the EU. Governments of these Southern countries have all the incentives to let illegal immigrants have a temporary permit, knowing that most of them are just transit migrants, aiming to go somewhere else. And the very fact that temporary permits are issued induce more people to leave the Tunisian coasts in the expectation that some legal, albeit temporary, status will be sooner or later granted to them.

Cross-country spillovers of migration policies are unavoidable. This is not the first time that they have occurred, it is just the first time that they have been so visible. Here are a few precedents. Finland tightened up its restrictions on immigration in 2004, reacting to the most restrictive stance taken by Denmark in 2002, which was inducing many more people to go to Finland. Portugal adopted more restrictive provisions in 2001, just after a likewise restrictive reform implemented by Spain in 2000. And Ireland chose a more restrictive approach in 1999, after two reforms in the UK that had tightened up migration restrictions, respectively in 1996 and 1998.

The lesson from all of these episodes is that uncoordinated national policies cannot govern migration. They can only give rise to a race to the top in putting nominal restrictions on migration, systematically violated by illegal migrants coming in from somewhere else.

The only way to control migration is to have realistic restrictions to international labour mobility and such realistic restrictions can only be adopted by taking into account the unavoidable spillovers across jurisdictions. This means having policies, quotas, and ways to fill these quotas, agreed upon at the EU level. National Governments are reluctant to delegate authority. So far they accepted Qualified Majority Voting only on measures tackling illegal migration, leaving decisions on restrictions to legal migration under unanimity rules, as if legal and illegal migration were not two sides of the same coin. 

A common migration policy would be better enforced because the most effective controls are not those done at the borders but those enforced at the workplace, tracking those who illegally exploit illegal migrants. Moreover, a united Europe can condition a package of support measures to Tunisia (or any other country where from flows originate) on its co-operation in the fight against illegal migration. A divided Europe only allows Governments of this region to play the divide and rule tactics, e.g., putting Italy against France, as has happened during the Lampedusa crisis.

A majority of Europeans, according to the Eurobarometer survey, are in favour of delegating authority on migration to supra-national authorities. But national politicians are tying their hands to the mast like Ulysses with the Sirens and do not understand that delegation is the only viable way to govern migration. Pretending to govern migration at the national level, these politicians only become hostages of xenophobic movements. It is the latter who have to lose from a EU migration policy because they would be left without an easy scapegoat. Better to proceed rapidly then, before the parties of the “true” Finns, Germans – or whatever – increase their electoral support in Europe even further.

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Topics:  EU policies Migration

Tags:  Italy, France, illegal migration

President, Italian Social Security administration (Inps)

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