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Analysis: Migration and xenophobia in Europe – an age old issue

30 August 20160 comments

The politics over immigration issues across Europe are growing ever more Byzantine and complicated as Turkey starts to assert itself after the July coup attempt, Britain’s role in a post-Brexit European Union is debated and France witnesses a new wave of anti-migrant sentiment.

This week Turkey stepped up its military incursion into northern Syrian territory attacking ISIS, as well as Kurdish forces opposing ISIS.

The move has put Turkey at odds with the US and NATO, who are supporting some of those Kurdish groups.

In March, the 28 European Union (EU) heads of state forged a meeting with Turkey aimed at addressing the overwhelming flow of smuggled migrants and asylum seekers travelling across the Aegean from Turkey to the Greek Islands. They agreed to allow Greece to return “all new irregular migrants” arriving after March 20 to Turkey.

In exchange, EU member states agreed to increase resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, accelerate visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals, and boost existing financial support for Turkey’s refugee population.

But this week Turkey threatened to break the immigration agreement with the EU and trigger a new crisis of refugees if the EU refuses to grant the free visa status to Turks.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Bulgarian counterpart Boiko Borisov said that the EU had yet to fulfil its promise on the free visa.

Mr Borisov said that Greece and Bulgaria would be the most affected countries by immigration flow if the agreement with Turkey is broken, since this country hosts nearly three million refugees.

As this impasse plays out, Hungary has announced plans for a new and even “more massive” fence to prevent refugees from crossing its border on their way to Western Europe.

The Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, said the construction would stop any surge in asylum seekers if the EU-Turkey deal reducing boat crossings over the Aegean Sea collapses.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had launched fresh criticism of other European countries that refuse to take Muslim refugees while vowing to keep up the pressure for a system to evenly distribute asylum-seekers across the continent.

She was speaking on the anniversary of her decision to open German borders to large numbers of migrants and as her own officials said Germany expected up to 300,000 migrants to arrive this year; and as the latest polls show her own popularity in Germany is slipping largely because of the refugee influx.

Germany, Britain and other leading European nations are continuing to haggle over what Brexit will ultimately look like with the UK wanting to keep an open market for its giant financial services industry while gaining control over the migration of EU citizens to the UK.

Germany wants Britain to shoulder more of Europe’s refugee burden but also wants to maintain access to the UK for its car exports.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and members of her cabinet are meeting this week to discuss their options in terms of exiting Europe.

Conservatives in cabinet are said to favour putting control over migration ahead of access to European markets.

The British public has never openly discussed the difference between membership and access to the single market but a recent report by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) outlined the difference.

The IFS report says that merely having “access” would place the UK in the same position as states like Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, who also have “access” to the European single market.

The IFS says membership is far more important, especially for service exports.

Service exports accounted for 44 per cent of British exports in 2015, 40 per cent of which were services to the EU. The IFS says that without “passporting rights” British overall service exports will be reduced.

But there is no precedent for a large country enjoying membership of the single market without free movement of people. So the choice seems simple: membership means no control on migration.

The situation is muddied further by the latest opinion polls following the June 23 Brexit referendum, which suggests ordinary Britons prize access to the single market over immigration control.

The poll showed this is a view held by 20 per cent of the Leave voters and 75 per cent of Remain voters.

The latest UK immigration figures show that Britain has made no progress in getting net immigration below the current level of about 300,000 a year – the very thing that triggered the Brexit vote.

One suggested solution is for Britain to become a member of the European Economic Area (EEA).

This would preserve its membership of the single market but give it no say in its rules and no effective limits on immigration.

Supporters of the Leave campaign say this would be a situation worse than that which prevailed before Brexit.

It’s one thing to reduce migration. It’s another to stop asylum seekers.

As he makes a tilt at again becoming President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy wants the Le Touquet agreement – which allows the UK to control its border in Calais and the French control theirs in Dover – to be revisited in the wake of the Brexit vote.

He wants the UK to open migrant “hotspots” in Calais – one-stop-shop asylum processing centres of the kind set up in Greece and Italy to deal with the massive numbers of asylum seekers.

Most commentators say this will make the problem worse, not better, for both France and Britain.

Mr Sarkozy’s comments came after France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, ruled against a decision by the mayor resort town Villeneuve-Loubet – and a move supported by Mr Sarkozy – to ban full-body swimwear.

But with Mr Sarkozy’s eye on next year’s presidential election and he won’t be the first politician to blame his nation’s woes on foreigners; Europe has a rich history of this kind of public myopia.

And if Sarkozy succeeds, who in post-Brexit, low-migration Britain could blame him?

As an editorial in Britain’s Independent newspaper said: “Throughout history, the European continent has been no stranger to populists. Don’t imagine other nations around Europe don’t have politicians just as vain, just as dismal, just as shameless and just as pyrotechnically destructive as, for example, Boris Johnson”.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist