The Controversial EU Concept of Integration

A- A A+

Integration is one of the major challenges posed to the European Union and it is even more so in light of the millions of refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine just in the last year. But increasingly, the existing EU legal and policy framework supports a controversial concept of integration: it allows and encourages the strategic selection of the most socio-economically and culturally desirable immigrants.

Why is the EU concept of integration controversial?

The notion of integration in EU law and policy is characterised by inherent contradictions.

Rights for immigrants

On the one hand various instruments of EU immigration law and EU policy have given immigrants in the EU a status that approximates the economic, social and political rights, opportunities, and overall treatment to those of EU citizens.

These instruments provided a series of effective integration initiatives and practices such as language courses, vocational education and training. Further, following the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, the Council even granted temporary protection to all Ukrainian refugees, as well as various rights and entitlements that foster integration in several respects.

Rights for Member States

On the other hand, the EU concept of integration has become instrumental to preserving the Member States’ sovereignty over immigration. Integration requirements gained increasing relevance in instruments of EU secondary law, soft law and policy, and implied a certain degree of conditionality by granting immigrants the rights to access the ‘host state’ on the condition that they integrate as expected. Rather than an integration process of reciprocal adjustment between immigrants and members of the receiving country, in many ways the concept of EU integration has now become synonymous with civic and cultural assimilation. Instead of promoting values of a pluralist society, this approach reflects a nationalistic narrative and centres on the immigrants’ acquisition of the language, values, culture, and way of life of the receiving country.

Selection and Control

An increasing emphasis on rights to Member States has led to the promotion and introduction at the national level of ‘integration conditions’ and pre-entry ‘integration measures’ in the form of mandatory civic and language programmes, courses, and tests. These measures transform the concept of integration into a legal tool of immigration selection and control. In practice, these requirements work as a filter for immigrants’ access to the EU right to family reunification, the long-term residence status, and further social benefits.

This selective approach was reproduced in the Students and Researchers Directive, Single Permit Directive, Blue Card Directive, and the Council decision all Ukrainian refugees, which aimed at attracting the most desirable immigrants, namely those who would supposedly better fit/assimilate into a pre-established national (or European) cultural, civic, and social model. Along the same lines, the Commission’s 2020 New Pact on Migration and Asylum and Action plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027 addressed immigration by putting a strong emphasis on the economic interests of the Union and by encouraging the externalisation of integration practices as well as return and reintegration schemes. The resulting paradigm of integration tends to exclude certain groups of immigrants, such as those coming from Muslim-majority, African, and Middle Eastern countries, women, older persons, adults illiterate or with learning disabilities, and individuals belonging to poorer social classes.

What is a possible solution?

Developing a different integration paradigm that works to create a more pluralist society necessarily requires disconnecting the concept of integration from that of sovereignty and assimilation. In parallel, the receiving society (in this case the EU and its Member States) has to take responsibility within the integration process and relieve immigrants from the burden of supporting all the integration efforts.

In order to achieve this, the EU would need to provide guidance and implement concrete strategies that would promote a concept of integration inspired by the principles of equality and non-discrimination as well as the respect of fundamental rights. Such a paradigm change towards a pluralist and rights-based conception of integration may be realised already in the practical implementation of the economic action NextGenerationEU, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum and the Action plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027, in the announced legislative reforms, and in the long-term approach to Ukrainian refugees.

Until then, EU action largely aims at preserving Member States’ sovereignty over immigration by using the concept of integration as a tool of selection and control of immigration flows. This is the antithesis of what integration means.

Learn more about the arguments and ideas in this blogpost in the article ‘Integration (of Immigrants) in the European Union: A Controversial Concept’, recently published in the European Journal of Migration and Law.

Matteo Bottero is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen and a former Visiting Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre, European University Institute.