The Refugee Crisis and EU integration: The Need for a Fine Balancing Act

The Refugee Crisis and EU integration: The Need for a Fine Balancing Act

The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe is threatening to unravel the very fabric of EU integration. It played a decisive role in determining the outcome of the ‘Brexit’ vote, and has sown the seeds of discord across the EU. To prevent further disintegration, the Union must develop a coherent and comprehensive migrant integration policy, and because it must do this amidst a strained political-economic climate, this will need to be a fine balancing act.

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President Juncker of the European Commission has described the refugee crisis as the EU’s foremost priority. In 2015, more than a million migrants sought refuge in the EU; another 1.5 million are expected to arrive in 2016, and 0.5 million in 2017. This unprecedented influx of refugees and the EU’s discordant management of the crisis has led to increased political tension and public dissatisfaction. There has been a rise in xenophobic and nationalist movements across the EU, and the crisis played a critical role in influencing the decision of the UK to leave the European Union. To prevent this slow dissolution of the Union, and because the inflow of refugees is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future, the EU needs to successfully integrate these refugees. This can be best achieved by continuing to mainstream its migrant integration policies.

The EU needs to view the refugee crisis as an opportunity. Indeed, the long-term benefits of integrating refugees outweigh the short-term costs relating to the reception and processing of refugees, and settlement procedures such as the provision of housing and mental and physical health services, language training, credential recognition and education and employment support. The International Labour Organization estimates that the increase in public spending and the resulting gains in labour force can contribute to an increase in GDP of 0.2-0.3% by 2020. Furthermore, a larger labour force can offset the demographic crisis that Europe faces: because of its aging population, under zero net migration, the EU’s labour force could shrink by 11.7 million (-3.5%) by 2020, and by 13 million (-4%) by 2030. Capitalizing on the diverse skills of its migrants might spur innovation, productivity, growth and social cohesion.

Creating an environment where refugees are welcome is thus contingent on their successful integration. However, European policymakers are operating in a climate of limited public budgets, heightened political tensions and increasing public dissatisfaction. Skeptics point to the almost negligible net economic benefit of increased migration, and to the added burden of economically-dependent migrants. They point to migrant-related reports of criminal activity and sexual assaults threatening social harmony. They fear a shift in the ethnic make-up and identity of European society and worry about the security threat in light of the terrorist attacks that Europe has suffered since 2014.

EU policymakers thus need to successfully integrate refugees while assuaging the fears of the skeptics. This balancing act may be contrived by ‘mainstreaming’ migrant integration policies.  Mainstreaming is essentially a shift in focus from specific towards generic policies and targets, and a shift from state-centric to poly-centric governance. Mainstreamed integration policies thus allow migrant populations to benefit from social programming aimed at facilitating integration that doesn’t target migrants specifically but rather, diverse populations more broadly. For instance, a programme aimed at providing employment support to disadvantaged groups would not only benefit all such groups, but also migrant groups particularly, since they will be disproportionately over-represented. Mainstreaming policies also allows for cooperation across a number of diverse stakeholders, such as government, private and civil society actors, as well as between different levels of government. In order to be effective, mainstreamed policies need a coherent, comprehensive political discourse and implementable policy measures.

Mainstreaming integration policies will thus allow EU policymakers to make efficient use of public funds to simultaneously address the needs of the refugees as well as their own disadvantaged populations without specifically targeting the former and reassuring the latter that refugees are not benefitting at their expense. This will lead to social cohesion and a diverse, inclusive society in the long run, and evidence points to better integration prospects for migrants. Furthermore, even though migrant policies to some extent fall under the jurisdiction of individual Member States, this approach will allow for policy coordination across the EU.

Mainstreaming is no panacea, however, and critics will point to its limitations. For one, the generic nature and targets of policies may obscure or dilute the policy message that is essential when addressing complex social issues such as migrant integration. Second, it is not clear to what extent vulnerable groups will actually end up benefitting from such generic policies. Moreover, designing effective needs-based policies targeting migrant populations requires reliable ethnic statistics.

These are all valid points, but one can argue that they simply highlight the fact that mainstreaming is still a relatively new trend, especially in the field of integration policy. In recent years, the UK, Denmark, Germany and France, have mainstreamed their migrant integration policies with some success, but despite this clear trend towards mainstreaming, observers note that there is still room for improvement. Mainstreaming migrant integration holds much more promise of success than previously tried policies such as coercive integration or assimilation. And it is through mainstreaming that Europe will be able to achieve a balance between addressing the needs of its citizens, and ensuring future integration and prosperity by successfully integrating new citizens.

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