The Current Tensions Affecting the European Migration Regime

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 By MW Fellow Emmanuel Comte (HEC 2014-2015, RSCAS 2015-2016) *

Several areas of tension affect the European migration regime; over the last year there has been a significant increase in those tensions. First, there are those that result from flows of European migrants within Europe. Second, there are those caused by flows of migrants from outside Europe.

European migratory flows continue to generate international tensions in Europe. First of all, these tensions have come to the forefront of EU politics with the Brexit referendum. Britain has been a major country of immigration within Europe in the past fifteen years. The British government of Tony Blair decided early on to grant access to the labour market to nationals of Central European countries. In the meantime, difficulties affecting the German labour market during the first decade of the century meant that a number of European migrants found work more easily in the UK. The British economy was open and dynamic. English is the most widely spoken language in the EU.

Immigration of hundreds of thousands of Europeans to Britain over the last fifteen years, in particular from the new member states of Central Europe, created causes for concern. Those migrants have certainly contributed to the dynamism of the British economy. But in a country with a growing population, they have also contributed to more acute tension on the British housing market. More importantly, British local authorities have expressed concern about their impact on the finances of social services. Finally, immigration has exacerbated traditional tensions on the labour market and British unions obtained a higher minimum wage to prevent downward pressures on wages.

These tensions have been so strong that the British government requested, in November 2015, a renegotiation of basic elements of the European migration regime: the free movement of workers and access to benefits for migrants in the destination country. Following the result of the 23rd June referendum, the UK will leave the EU. And yet, in 2016, migration flows have become more oriented towards Germany. As Germany has more capacity over the long term to absorb immigration, if the UK remains in the European migration regime—albeit out of the EU—, tension over European immigration in Britain should not last over the long term, were other things to remain equal.

The second type of tension associated with migratory flows within the EU relates to the posting of workers. This is a long-lasting problem, which has never found an appropriate solution. Poorer Member States, with lower labour standards, generally advance the interests of their small and medium enterprises to access the markets of richer countries through the channel of the provision of services. For these enterprises, it would be a means to increase their business and create more jobs. Member States agree that the posting of workers should respect the employment law of the country where services are provided. However, tensions regularly re-emerge, as unions and employers in countries with higher labour standards denounce violations of such standards for posted workers from abroad. Under the Greek presidency in the first semester of 2014, the Council adopted a new directive on this matter.[1] As a country plagued by unemployment, Greece promoted the project. Greek Minister for Foreign Affairs Evangélos Vénizélos declared in May 2014, just before the adoption of the directive, “I won’t stop repeating how important it is to encourage economic growth and projects that create jobs and fight unemployment, especially among young Europeans.” Nevertheless, this regular legislative activity has not yet been able to solve this point of contention within the EU.

Beside tensions associated with European migration flows, it is evident today that the main features of the European migration regime have become heavily dependent on the situation at the external borders of the EU. Trans-Mediterranean migration flows have dramatically increased in recent years, even though the situation has come under greater control since the migration agreement between the EU and Turkey. The wars in the Middle East and North Africa have contributed largely to such flows, but they also reflect economic conditions in these countries. Among the about 70,000 migrants who crossed the border between Greece and Turkey illegally during January 2016, barely one-third were Syrian nationals.[2] The situation has reached a paroxysm in the last ten months, with major EU states establishing controls at their borders. Despite its compelling interest in the integrity of the Schengen area, Germany started the move last September and was soon followed by Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and France.

In the face of a major challenge for the EU’s border-crossing regime, intense legislative activity at the EU level has been intended to limit asylum requests through the establishment of an EU common list of safe countries of origin. EU states recently tried to distribute arrived refugees in EU countries. The main novelty in the European migration regime has been the increasing militarization of the EU external border to stem the flow of immigrants. In Spring 2015, the EU launched the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean military operation with the aim of neutralizing established refugee smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. NATO has been involved, more recently, in the monitoring of illegal border-crossings in the Aegean Sea.[3] Furthermore, a major deal has been signed with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants. The European Council offered serious concessions to Turkey in the field of financial assistance, visa policy, and enlargement negotiations to secure Turkish help.

These challenges that the European migration regime is facing today are significant. The clearest consequences so far are the militarization of the EU external border and the broad concessions made to Turkey to stem the flow of immigrants from outside Europe. More than ever, Germany acts as a stabilizer of the tensions and is the principal supporter of the regime. Consequently, whether or not current tensions will significantly change the European migration regime is uncertain.



[3] European Council Conclusions on migration (18 February 2016), PRESS RELEASE, 72/16, 19/02/2016.

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme