international analysis and commentary

The forgotten role of the EU in the migration crisis: economic policies matter


The current debate on immigration takes for granted that the problem is urgent and that the EU – as of yet – has no common policy to face it. Both statements are true, but they fail to grasp the real dimensions of the issue, as they overlook that it has been simmering for years. Also, they do not take into consideration that although Europe has not yet been able to muster common asylum procedures, so far it has been conducting a “de facto” immigration policy in the form of potent trade and economic incentives with tremendous impact on its immediate neighbors and beyond. Thus, regardless of the humanitarian urgency of the moment, Europe needs to address these underlying factors if it wants to face the sheer magnitude of the problem.

Well before the situation in the Mediterranean reached the current state of widespread disorder, Europe was influencing incentives for migration through at least two important policies: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, later included in the European Neighbourood Instrument. While the former has basically supported agro-industrial production in the EU, accounting at some point for more than 50% of the EU budget (40% today), the latter, launched at the Barcelona Conference of 1995, envisaged a Euro-Mediterranean free trade area by 2010, an objective repeatedly modified by geopolitical realities.

The Euro-Med area, however, was based from the start on full liberalization of trade in industrial products and only limited overtures in the agricultural sector. The fear was that an immediate opening to agricultural produce from non-EU Mediterranean countries could overrun agricultural producers from the EU, especially its Southern members, and threaten well-established interests. The Euro-Med free trade area and the CAP, in other words, were complementing each other to stave off agricultural competition from the Mediterranean neighbors of the EU.

The net result of this approach was to put a cap on the growth of exports from Mediterranean countries to the EU, thus also limiting the amount of jobs that could be created in the Southern farm lands. This has reinforced a steady stream of internal migrations in North Africa from agricultural areas to the cities on the Mediterranean coastline and from there to Europe. In the process, the illegal networks used to ferry the migrants to Europe have reinforced their services to the Sub-Saharan migrants who increasingly trod the way north and who, instead of stopping to work in North African lands, end up in Europe, often finding underpaid jobs in those very sectors that the EU was subsidizing, for example in the production of tomatoes and grapes. Only starting from 2005, with a new Barcelona Conference, and following the expansion of multilateral agricultural agreements under the WTO, did the EU launch a further opening of the European market to agricultural products from the South and East Mediterranean. By then, however, it was already too late to reverse the trend in the face of a huge, increasing demographic imbalance.

The irony is that in those same years, i.e. between 1995-2005, when most investments were needed to encourage the Euro-Med free trade area to take off and create jobs to keep people in South-East Mediterranean countries, the EU managed to estrange the Gulf States from the project of investing in those very countries to reap the benefits of further integration with Europe. EU institutions have simply insisted on human rights issues in the Gulf, failing to offer those states a real partnership at a moment when, following 9/11, the new Iraq war and the US strategic rebalancing in the area, they were most keen to diversify their alliances in every realm, be it economic or political. The result is that the Gulf countries have shunned Europe as a bloc and decided to embark on autonomous projects, trying to change a framework of mutual relations that was not really meeting their needs. It was in these very years that the foreign, economic and military policy of Qatar and the UAE started to stand out and become increasingly independent, sowing the seeds of their current intervention in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere.

Then the Arab Springs came, coupled with the apathy of the EU in offering a new, comprehensive partnership to the region: this only accelerated the process of divergence, making more stark the absence of a policy where both the EU and partner countries could realistically buy in.

Of course, one cannot blame the EU institutions for the current state of affairs in Libya and Syria. Yet, the EU certainly bears a heavy responsibility for missed opportunities and for pretending that its economic, trade and external policies of the last twenty years have nothing to do with the current state of affairs. In fact, it was clear since the beginning that those very policies were insufficient in providing stability and were actually creating conflicting incentives for migration, increasing bilateral dependence on Europe and failing to create a sustainable system on a regional scale.

The flood of immigrants coming to Europe today is certainly the result of potent “push” factors, such as wars and terrorism, that could partly be foreseen but hardly reversed, and that in any case are the result of mainly exogenous forces. Their extraordinary urgency has brought a sort of relabeling of “immigrants” as “refugees”, thus moving the debate from the socio-economic camp to that of politico-humanitarian needs. Regardless of the immediate triggers of the inflow, however, the “pull” factors are here to stay and depend on European agricultural, trade and economic policies. An overhaul is needed to redress the imbalances in the long run, one where Gulf countries, too, must be part of the equation.

Addressing the issue from this angle in the midst of the current emergency is probably beyond the reach of European leaders today. Yet, unless they learn to see the larger picture and factor in international trade, regional and economic interests, there is little hope that any policing or quota-sharing measure will ever be able to make the situation manageable.