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Europese Verkiezingen 2024

'The flow of migrants simply moves to another area.'

With right-wing parties across Europe riding high, the debate on migration is expected to become highly tempestuous. Despite this, Professor of International Studies and Global Politics Sarah Wolff urges calm.

sarah wolf'The European Commission has already moved to the right,' she says. 'This is evident, for example, from the migration deals that have been made with countries like Tunisia and Egypt. However, many far-right parties are far from coherent about what they actually want when it comes to migration. As political scientists, we obviously have no crystal ball either. Much will therefore depend on the majorities that emerge in the EU parliament after the elections. That will determine what coalitions can be formed in order for action to be taken.'

Wolff's place of work in The Hague is a stone’s throw from the European Commission delegation in the Netherlands and from the Torentje – where a new Prime Minister will soon be moving in. She has been working for Leiden University since January, conducting research on EU migration and asylum policies, among other things.

   The result was that the country of arrival became responsible for processing an asylum application.'

'The debate on European migration policy has been deadlocked for years because of disagreements over the Dublin Convention. It was signed in the 1990s to prevent migrants whose asylum applications had been rejected in France from travelling on to Germany to try again. The result was that the country of arrival became responsible for processing an asylum application,' she explains. 'The fact is that most migrants arrive in Greece or Italy. Other EU member states should therefore make a financial contribution or provide additional capacity. This led to discussions that went on for many years.'

Tighter border regime

As a solution, the European Commission came up with its New Pact for Migration and Asylum in 2020, a package of measures that was adopted by the European Parliament in April 2024. Wolff is critical of the pact: 'The pact was adopted to show the EU is delivering real results on the issue of migration, ahead of the elections in June. However, there are very important elements missing from the proposed legislation.'

'By 2050, for instance, there are likely to be two pensioners for every economically active employee. The question is therefore how we want to regulate labour migration properly. That aspect has been completely eclipsed because the Commission is keen to show that it is capable of controlling the external border.’

   Migration diplomacy has been around since the 19th century.'

The resulting tighter border regime is something the Commission intends to extend in close collaboration with countries in North Africa. Wolff has a good knowledge of the region where the EU is now making migration agreements. Prior to her academic career, she worked at the European Parliament in Brussels and at the Commission's Department for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO). She also carried out field research on the Spanish-Moroccan border. 'The treaties the EU is currently concluding are not new: migration diplomacy has been around since the 19th century. What has changed is that the current arrangements are informal and concluded by the Commission and EU member states together. This explains why, for example, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, together with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, were in Tunisia to conclude an agreement there.'

Formally, therefore, the current generation of migration agreements is not EU legislation, says Wolff. 'They are a kind of gentlemen's agreement in which the EU agrees to pay a substantial amount to a third country to carry out border checks. But the fact that the agreements of the kind concluded with Tunisia have not travelled the usual legislative route has incurred the annoyance of the European Parliament. It has now lodged a complaint with the European Ombudsman.'



Wolff has serious misgivings about the effectiveness of migration agreements. 'If you look at Europe and migration, the core problem is the low proportion of people who return to their home countries,' she explains. 'Despite the attempts to extend the EU's external borders further and further, that proportion has not changed during that time. Indeed, if you try to control the number of arrivals from one country, the flow of migrants simply moves to another area. I myself worked at the Strait of Gibraltar for a long time. The area was intensively patrolled, with radar, satellites, and rapid intervention by the coastguard if a boat was spotted anywhere. Migrants from Africa quickly shifted their travel route and now arrive in the Canary Islands via Senegal.'

And yet, the European Commission is working on more deals with North Africa to tackle immigration. In the wake of a treaty with Mauritania costing more than 200 million euros, the possibility of an agreement with Morocco is now also being explored, says Wolff. 'The question we often forget to ask here is whether partner countries are able to convince their own people of the merits of making deals with European populist politicians. Not everyone is attracted by the idea of being the EU’s policeman.'

Refugees from Ukraine

According to Wolff, the reasons for the current opposition to migration and the popularity of radical right-wing parties in Europe lie deeper. 'In many EU member states, aversion to immigration goes hand in hand with the rejection of liberal values, open society and the international order in general. This is partly because neoliberal globalisation has created all kinds of economic inequality. The EU is still mainly based on market forces with little consideration given to social aspects. This does not fully explain the negative attitude towards migrants, but it certainly does contribute towards it.'

   Migrants from Africa are turned into a crisis. If you take a look at the figures, there really is no migration crisis at all.'

The discontent is then milked by political actors for political gain. 'When we had to suddenly accommodate four million Ukrainian refugees, there was no problem,' Wolff argues. 'But migrants from Africa are turned into a crisis. If you take a look at the figures, there really is no migration crisis at all. It is a crisis of capacity, and that is a political choice. The EU's so-called solutions are mostly about showing that the EU can act tough. All the while, though, nothing is being resolved.'

Tekst: Hans Wetzels

More information:
Wetenschappers Leiden-Delft-Erasmus over de Europese verkiezingen

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