EU, Spain and the refugee crisis

4 octobre 2016
Interview of Patricia Lisa, Research Fellow at Real Instituto Elcano.
In your opinion, what are the roots of the refugee crisis?

Various geopolitical dynamics in the EU’s neighborhood and beyond (mainly the Middle East and North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa) have generated unprecedented and growing migratory flows towards Europe. They relate to security challenges, growing regional instability, the deterioration of the economic and social environment, poverty and unemployment, climate change, etc., which are expected to last for decades.

Do you think that the worst of the refugee crisis is now behind us?

We have a poor approach to the root causes of these massive influxes. We still face inflows from the existing routes and a very realistic threat of the reopening of old ones or the appearance of new ones (eg., the north-east is beyond the realms of possibility).
The speed of the emergence of new routes far outpaces the EU’s decision-making capacity, which is increasingly dominated by national perspectives. On the contrary, the unpreceded magnitude of the inflows demands a collective and solidarity-based approach, the only one capable of achieving enduring results.
We have now moved from the Greek and Turkey refugee emergency crises to a Central Mediterranean scenario. Although drastically reduced, in the Greek case, and in the process of being reduced in the Mediterranean, the inflows have not stopped. Neither should we forget the 57.000 people held up in Greek camps. It is too soon to evaluate the functioning of the mechanisms set up to tackle the refugee and migration crises, namely the fragile EU-Turkey declaration.

Do you think that we are now in a ‘migrant’ crisis and not a ‘refugee’ one anymore?

The current inflows are mixed (both refugees and economic migrants). In the Eastern route the flows have a greater component of refugees from Syria but there are also economic migrants. The Central/Western Mediterranean route mainly comprises economic migrants but also have a high degree of refugees from Eritrea, for instance.
Apparently, the distinction between refugees and economic migrants is easy but, in practice, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two. All these people largely come from very poor countries, with cruel dictatorships and deadly conflicts. To decide if a particular individual is fleeing for reasons of economic survival or because his life or physical integrity are at risk is becoming a grey area.
Despite their obviously different legal statuses, the point is they face similar challenges. After a period of adaptation refugees must be integrated and found places in the labour markets, which is not always an easy task. Both categories face the risk of confrontation with anti-immigration movements.
It must be borne in mind that the current refugee/migration wave primarily affects southern Member States, which are the most affected by the economic crisis and have less resources to manage, integrate and provide social protection to refugees. The lack of legal, operational, administrative and financial resources to streamline and speed-up asylum procedures (including appeals) and to enforce deportation orders are a major concern. The EU’s general poor returning rates for those who are not entitled to stay signals a considerable breakdown in its immigration policy and can become a safety issue for the Schengen area.

What do you think about the EU policies developed to tackle this issue? What about the agreement with Turkey? The European Frontier and coast guards?

For the time being we have managed to stem the crisis, reduce inflows and regain control over our borders. However, the debate persists in the EU and is giving rise to one of the deepest political rifts in the EU.
The measures adopted so far, although important, are clearly short-term fixes. The EU-Turkey agreement should be seen as an emergency, exceptional, short-term measure to tackle a humanitarian crisis. It accomplished its objectives and drastically reduced the irregular and dangerous crossings from Turkey. However, exceptional measures, taken in exceptional circumstances, are never good starting points for policy-making.
The European Border Guard was approved in record time. For that reason, its initial ambitious scope was largely reduced. We still need to see how it operates in practice, but the obligatory pool of 1,500 border guards to be deployed in cases where a Member state faces a disproportionate migratory pressure is clearly insufficient.
Furthermore, migration and asylum policies need to adapt to the new environment. The complete revision of the EU’s asylum system is one of the most problematic and is lacking true political will to go forward.

Do you think that the Spanish experience in migrations policies field should / could be more taken into account?

Spain is the only European country with land frontiers with Africa and with significant experience in dealing with the ‘South. The arc of crisis extending from the Gulf of Guinea to the Middle East is a major security and migration challenge for the EU and a major Spanish concern. For this reason Spain always took part in and cooperated with NATO and CSDP initiatives, as well as in developing JHA cooperation initiatives.
Spain is the destination of the Western Mediterranean and West African routes. During the migratory pressure of irregular arrivals to the Canary Islands from 2000 onwards, Spain deployed a very efficient and comprehensive plan that managed to halt inflows to zero.
Such a comprehensive plan provides an interesting case study of balancing and combining endogenous and exogenous measures to deal with this type of crisis. It had four major focal points. First, a huge diplomatic deployment to strengthen bilateral ties, build trust and allow a closer cooperation with local actors in all origin and transit countries. Secondly, the holding of bilateral cooperation partnership agreements with the countries identified as the source of the problem. Third, the creation of security, intelligence and policy strategies together with capacity-building programmes and joint actions. Finally, the creation of legal avenues and resettlement policies through bilateral agreements with those countries.
It is true that the Spanish migratory crisis differed from the EU’s current challenges in both scale and nature. Spain was dealing with around 31,000, mostly economic, migrants arriving in the Canaries and not with mixed inflows. However, the Spanish solutions can be relevant. In fact, the same kind of approach was also proposed by Italy last April to the Council of the EU.
Until the EU-Turkey declaration, the EU’s reaction to the refugee and migration crisis focused mainly on securing its internal dimension (European Border Guard, reform of the CEAS, Relocation Decisions, Communication ‘Back to Schengen’ and proposals on ‘Smart Borders’). The so-called ‘Marshall plan’, presented by the Commission last June, mirrors the EU-Turkey approach and was rightly received with some scepticism among several Spanish experts and authorities. The proposed negative incentives were one of the most questioned aspects.

In your opinion, what could be the impacts of the migrant crisis on security in Europe? Do you think that there could be a link between terrorism and migrations?

The massive migrations to the EU are a challenge. Terrorism is a threat. They are different in nature, have distinct causes, roots and consequences and should be dealt, as such, in a different manner. Linking the two would only increase the already growing mistrust and intolerance while not giving adequate policy responses.
Despite the potential risk of terrorists using irregular migratory routes to enter in the EU –as the Paris attacks seemed to have demonstrated– there is insufficient evidence to suggest there are significant changes in the terrorists’ means to enter the EU. Reinforcing and improving the coordination on the EU’s external borders is a priority, but should not undermine the fact that the recent terrorist attacks on European soil seem to have come from within. Neglecting this reality would only shift the focus away from the need for sharp preventive measures to avoid radicalisation and stabilising those regions.

Some people explain that the Sophia Operation in the Mediterranean is feeding the refugee flow and the smuggler networks. Do you share this opinion?

The Sophia operation’s main focus was dismantling smuggling networks, not rescuing people. The limitation of its mandate (targeting traffickers only, out of Libyan territorial waters, with no coercive powers and with the risk of collateral effects) transformed it into a humanitarian operation for which military forces are not the best option. The increasing numbers of detentions reported to Frontex during the 1st and 3rd trimester of 2015 show the evident call effect of the operation.
However, Frontex data for the 1st quarter of 2016 show a decrease in illegal border crossings in the Central Mediterranean of 14% compared with the previous quarter. This is the first drop since the beginning of the operation, but still higher than any 1st quarter analysis since the beginning data began to be collected in 2007. The reason, indicated in the report, was adverse weather conditions. We have no data showing the route is being dismantled, notably, the number of detections was 83% higher than a year ago according to the same Frontex report. It appears the operation’s success –the reduction of migratory flows– is not necessarily linked to a military dissuasive effect or dismantling of the smuggling business.
Dismantling smuggling networks is more connected to the FSJ policy and its agencies (EUROPOL, FRONTEX) than to CSDP. The ties between the two are new and remain fragile within the EU. The recent extension and reinforcement of the mandate to include training Libyan authorities to tackle these networks is a decision in the right direction, which really can help to decrease trafficking.

The political consequences of the crisis in European countries are significant. What do you foresee with the coming elections in France and Germany next year? Are you pessimistic regarding the impacts of their result on the treatment of the migration crisis?

The arrival of 1.5 million asylum-seekers over the past two years not only stoked anti-immigration sentiment but exacerbated socioeconomic, security and identity concerns. The competition between locals and immigrants for scarce public resources and fears about national identity is fuelling xenophobic movements. The fear of a wave of unregistered asylum-seekers hailing from Muslim countries only served to intensify apprehension towards Muslim communities, intensified by the terrorist attacks in France and Germany.
Additionally, the arrival of poorly-qualified immigrants aggravates the difficulties faced by already stressed welfare states, undermining the ‘demographic blessing’ theory on the arrival of refugees.
This framework can lead to an agenda changing from the traditional moderate parties towards a more national- and security-based dimension. It remains to be seen whether there is political space available to counter radical discourses and defend tolerant and multicultural agendas. It is rightly pointed out that tolerance comes with improving the EU’s living conditions on welfare and employment. Working on these dimensions and defending tolerance and solidarity might be one of the focuses.

Do you think that the Brexit could be the opportunity to go further on political integration of EU?

Brexit can be seen as reflecting the growing discontent and inequality in EU societies, starting from 2005 (as in the NL and FR Referendums) and intensified by the consequences of the economic crisis of 2008.
The Union has become more internally differentiated than ever before. Many Member States object to single uniform solutions that apply equally to all. Other governments resent German’s hegemony and perceive it as a unilateral imposition of its model, exercised by means of a tight control over the agenda and a growing bias towards intergovernmental management of the Union. Renewed alternatives and leadership are not in the horizon. In the long run, this may lead not only to increasing breakages but also to alienation from the European project once seen and accepted has a common project. Achieve differentiated, flexible solutions can be the new trend to find consensus and regain the perception of a win-win situation, replacing the current win-lose situation.
Citizens require better European governance, and this refers as much to improve EU’s institutional and national arrangements: the rule of law, administrative effectiveness and weeding out corruption.
Contrarily to the EU’s common perception, this time the crisis might not lead to more integration, or ‘more Europe’. The focus might be to target minimum operational achievements rather than pursuing major integration goals.

Interview made by Bastien Alex, Research Fellow at IRIS
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