A Social Europe and Migration

Why You Should Vote: The Stakes of the 2019 Elections

Part II: A Social Europe & Migration

By Denis Anwar & Alexander Lipke


In our series on decisive topics for the 2019-2024 legislative mandate of the newly elected European Parliament and the incoming Commission we touch upon diverging views on the nature of the European Union. While some stay committed to the emotional language of the Rome Treaty in 1957 that spoke of “an ever closer Union”, others pursue a pragmatic vision of a Union that does ‘fewer things better’ and delivers primarily on its core promises of peace and prosperity. These somewhat conflicting ideas are what shapes the debate around a social Europe and a common migration policy.

In the view of the first group that favours further pooling and integration, Europe shares a common responsibility for migration and the management of its external borders. They also largely believe that the notion of freedom encompasses a socio-economic basis that allows citizens to take advantage of and fully participate in the privileges that come with free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. It is the conviction that the European Union ought to find collective solutions to migration as a product of violence and poverty outside the Union and to economic hardship stemming from the more ruthless sides of Capitalism inside the Union. The second group, in contrast, largely opposes concerted European action in migration and social policy and overwhelmingly believes that Member States are better positioned to devise effective policy solutions for their citizenry. As such, the two groups provide two opposing poles that are set to shape migration policy as much as social policy in the European Union.

Toward a Social Union?

From an Economic, to a Political on to a Social Union. This is how many Social Democratic and other progressive parties across Europe would like the European Union’s future direction to play out. What started as a mere economic project with the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Single Market, and became a political project at least since the Maastricht Treaty and the founding of the EU, is now supposed to turn into a social project. Fittingly, the Party of European Socialists coined their 2019 election manifesto the “New Social Contract” for Europe. Two demands take the centre stage in this campaign: A Europe-wide minimum wage and a European emergency unemployment insurance.

While different models are up for debate, the most prominent outline for a European minimum wage contains the idea to set it at 60% of every Member State’s median wage. National minimum wages range from around 300 Euros/month in Bulgaria to just above 2000 Euros/month in Luxembourg. By using the median wage of each country as an orientation, the differences in income and living costs between different Member States can be taken into account. According to OECD figures, minimum wages in ten EU countries were below even 50 percent of the national median wage of a full time worker. Among them are large countries like Germany, the UK and Spain. In the most extreme example of Spain an EU minimum wage would mean an increase of 62 percent or 2,67 euros compared to the national minimum from 2017.

Perhaps the more controversial among the two proposals is the introduction of a common eurozone unemployment or pension fund. Its many critics fear that financially solid EU states would have to shoulder the economic cost of other countries’ unreasonable and unsustainable public finances. Frans Timmermans, the lead candidate for the social democratic S&D group, has repeatedly refuted such criticism. He points out that the idea is to create an emergency insurance, which is activated only in times of sudden economic shocks and job losses on a large scale. The goal is to avoid situations like in Greece after the financial crisis ten years ago, when the state was not able to shoulder the exploding burden on its social security system anymore, plunging many pensioners and unemployed into financial and social disaster. Following the recent proposals, a country in economic trouble could use money from a common eurozone fund to pay its pensioners and unemployed until the crisis has eased off. This way, the insurance or fund serve as a macroeconomic stabilizer. A similar system is in effect in the United States.

But how realistic are these social policy demands against the background of the European Treaties, which define the fundamental scope of Union action in all policy areas? Critics often claim that in order to deliver on these promises the treaties would have to be changed, presupposing a unanimous vote. Considering the current political climate within the European Union, this seems like an unlikely scenario. Article 4 of the TFEU defines Social Policy as a “shared competence”, meaning that both the Union and the Member States have legislative powers. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of Article 153 TFEU significantly limit the adoption of social measures on EU level, however. Social provisions adopted by the EU may not affect a Member State’s right to define their own fundamental principles for their social security systems (Paragraph 4), nor may they apply to the payment of workers (Paragraph 5). These limitations cast doubt upon a seamless adoption of the proposed social policies. At the very least they will make it an all the more complicated matter.

A Common European Migration and Asylum Policy?

In 2015, increased numbers of migrants and refugees were stylised to a crisis and gave rise to populist forces. Considering that this year’s figures on illegal arrivals are at their lowest in five years, one has to wonder why it remains a top priority for European citizens. One reason could be that regular migration streams caused by war, climate change and economic imbalances are still high enough, and that at the same time, the EU burden-sharing under the Dublin agreement seems unfair to many citizens. The latter, initially introduced in 1990, is a common approach to handle migration, but even its third reform in 2014 appeared to be outdated in the light of the challenges that came with rising numbers of refugees in 2015. According to the procedure, the state in which the asylum seeker first enters the EU is obliged to conduct the asylum procedure. In reality, Dublin did not work as many refugees just moved on and the EU countries that would actually have been in charge did not take them back. Although one could assume that this first-enter-mechanism automatically leads to a high burden for frontline countries, one has to mention that Italy, despite being a major entry point in the Mediterranean, would have had to take in additional refugees from other countries in 2014 in the interest of a balanced distribution. Neglecting these facts, particularly the politically right-leaning Visegrad states oppose a reform of the Dublin system, as they fear to experience higher inflows, something they deem to go against their electorate’s interests.


The End of the Mission Sophia

Another, this time unilateral approach from the Italian government was to block the ships of humanitarian organisations in their ports. This short-sighted action, which - while neither breaking international law nor the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees - contributed to the stop of the so-called “Mission Sophia”. This Mission, initiated in 2015 by the EU, aimed to train Lebanese coast guards as well as to prevent the work of tractors in the Mediterranean. Although it was not its primary task, there were close to 50,000 shipwrecked refugees rescued within the last three years. The EU tried to extend the mission’s mandate, but needed the agreement of all Member States including Italy. It eventually expired in March 2019 despite the EU’s efforts, as the Defence Ministers of the Member States were not able to agree on an amendment of the mandate. Although in general every Member State agreed to continue this operation, negotiations failed over burden-sharing mechanisms. Until March, Italy was obliged to take in every refugee that was rescued by the Mission Sophia. Albeit figures drastically declined last year, Italian right-wing populists in power complained about this and demanded that other Member States take in more refugees and handle their asylum procedures. Considering the facts that in the first half of 2018 Germany had more than twice the amount of asylum applications that Italy had (66,000 vs. 28,000) and that comparable or smaller countries like Spain or Greece took in more boat refugees in 2018, one has to wonder whether the Italian hysteric rhetoric and policy positions ban be justified by the facts. Anyway, during the meeting of the Defence Ministers no other country agreed on opening their ports long-term. Only a few Member States expressed a non-binding will to voluntarily take in rescued people coming from Libya. Facing this “low commitment”, Italy denied to agree on a provisional one-year extension and thereby left the task of rescuing refugees mainly to the Lebanese coast guard.

People fleeing poverty and violence will come anyway, just by other routes. In the best case, this blockade policy only leads to a change in routes, which shifts the burden to other Member States. Thus, frontline countries like Italy are in no position to neglect this issue. In fact, Greece had problems dealing with arrivals in large numbers that originated in Turkey. Figures significantly increased, as Slovenia decided to close their borders and thus de facto closed the Balkan route, which usually allowed refugees to travel from Southern to Western states. At that moment, Greece was a central hub of migration, receiving refugees from Turkey of which some headed to the Northwest and some stayed in the country.

Trying to solve exactly this issue in the past, by decreasing the attractiveness of sea routes and increasing the opportunities for legal migration, the think tank European Stability Initiative came up with the so-called “Merkel Plan”. Later, this Plan served as the foundation for the EU-Turkey treaty. The deal is as follows: for every Syrian person, who is deported from Greek islands to Turkey, another Syrian person from Turkey will be resettled in the EU (1:1 mechanism). In practice, there were some concerns voiced by the UN high commissioner for Refugees, who scrutinised the compatibility with international law due to the fact that every refugee arriving in Greece will be imprisoned, be it adult or child.

The Party Group’s 2019 Policy Positions

But set aside these short-term (re-)actions of the past: what visions do party groups in the European Parliament have to solve the migration issues in the long-term?

The European People’s Party (EPP)

The European People’s Party (EPP) emphasises the importance to protect external borders and likewise to have an efficient return policy. Therefore, they want to strengthen Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, as well as to build on the EU-Turkey treaty as a foundation to talk with North African countries about border protection agreements. In order to efficiently return rejected asylum seekers, they want to introduce a Return Warrant System. Instead of building safe paths, the EPP wants to tackle and eradicate the push factors for migration by developing a Marshall Plan for Africa.

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)

On the other hand, the Party of European Socialists mentions safe paths as an option to eliminate irregular migration. Besides this, they favour a common asylum and migration policy, and want to enhance the communication between Member States, countries of origin and transit countries. Respecting the principle of burden-sharing between Member States, they do not merely seek to make it a fair system, but to particularly support so-called frontline countries like Italy, which are especially affected by migration streams. Indeed, they share the EPP’s idea of an investment plan for Africa in order to tackle the causes of migration.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

ALDE supports safe paths and the strengthening of Frontex too, but also wants to outsource the administration of asylum processes to the country where asylum seekers come from. Moreover, they share the PES’s view on giving financial aid to host countries, but want to link it to the acceptance of returnees. This means that there should be an incentive system for third countries to take their people back as well as a cooperation in order to tackle the causes of migration. Although they want to strengthen the Blue Card system, Member States should have the final decision whom to let in based on the type of skills they currently need in their workforce.

The European United Left (GUE/NGL)

The Left promotes a cooperation with countries of origin too; however, it sets the focus not on the return but the reunification process of families. Member States that refuse to comply with the rules should be sanctioned. All in all, they want to strengthen the rights of refugees and ask for a reform of the Dublin asylum system.

The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA)

Regarding the latter, the Greens share this view too, as they argue that a common asylum system would facilitate the adoption of common standards on labor mobility. They also share the view of safe paths and stress the significance of humanitarian visas for asylum seekers in non-European countries. Although they want to support non-European host countries, they oppose the idea of disembarkation platforms to manage migration. Seemingly, they are the only party calling for a European sea-rescue mission in the Mediterranean.

Past Stalemates and Future Challenges

For now, it is not obvious which party group’s ideals will succeed this weekend. In any way, the victorious parties and the incoming Commission will have the obligation to balance their policy approach between a fair and hard migration policy that protects fundamental human rights and facilitates integration while ensuring an efficient repatriation mechanism in cases where asylum is denied after due judicial process. Simply stopping ships from saving lives, as the Italian government effectively did with its unilateral decision to desiccate the Mission Sophia, or closing the Balkan route, as Slovenia unilaterally decided, are no solutions. Neither is bowing to nationalist tendencies, as Juncker did by giving up on his goal on a Dublin asylum reform, which could have led to a Common European Asylum System, due to facing opposition from Member States from the Visegrad group. Instead, these countries and their statesmen should discover the power of a common approach and should focus on the opportunities of a common European asylum and migration policy.

BridgeEurope has assembled the key proposals of four major party groups in the European Parliament ahead of this year’s elections. These can be found in our series #EP2019. Already next week we will have a better understanding what Europeans want the future of their Union to look like. It is a future shaped partly by discussions on European defence and environmental policy. There is still a long way to go for European topics to get the attention they deserve and for all parts of the political spectrum to be engaged in a European transnational debate. It starts by being informed and casting the ballot this weekend.