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European Union Common Market Commission Referendum EU Migrant Refugee Crisis

If there was no EU, there would still be a European refugee crisis


The ongoing refugee crisis has unsurprisingly fuelled the anti-EU camp. If, during the referendum on Britain’s membership with the European Union, we’re subject to the same hard-hitting headlines on refugees as we were this summer, then I can see the British public voting to leave.

But nobody seems to be asking the simple question of why, exactly, the ongoing refugee crisis is at all connected to Britain’s membership of the EU. So at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, here are my three reasons why these are entirely separate issues.

First, Europe has had refugee crises before the EU even existed; and indeed countries outside the EU are currently faced with similar pressures to us.

The obvious historical example is Europe in the 1930s, where – contrary to popular perceptions – the continent palpably failed to accept our moral responsibility to help Jewish refugees. Many of the debates we’re having today are similar to those we had then, and sadly much of the anti-refugee rhetoric evokes memories of this past.

But in terms of our modern-day experience, I’m also finding it impossible to distinguish between the pressures faced by non-EU countries and EU countries. Norway, which isn’t part of the EU, is struggling to stop thousands of Syrian refugees from crossing its border with Russia, which isn’t either. The US, needless to say, is also facing its own Syrian refugee crisis; and the political backlash this has caused doesn’t need to be repeated here. Many of the former Yugoslav countries which aren’t in the EU are struggling with an influx of refugees in much the same way as the former Yugoslav countries which are – Serbia and Macedonia (non-EU) have, just like Slovenia and Croatia (EU), become transit points for refugees hoping to head to richer countries in Western Europe. Macedonia, just like Croatia and Hungary, has just built a 10-foot high fence in an attempt to stem the flow of people. The image above (Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed) is from the Serbian-Hungarian border.

Second, Britain is not being forced by any EU policy to accept more refugees.

On the contrary the EU’s 1990 Dublin Regulation, which regulates which state is responsible for an asylum claim, is quite positive for Britain: it provides that generally, they are the responsibility of the first EU country that they enter. The story of the past few years is one of failure to apply this law; and failure to get together and and adopt any kind of common strategy at all. Britain has done pretty well out of this chaos and we haven’t accepted anything like a fair share of refugees – nor, crucially, are we obliged to do so under our existing arrangements with the EU.

Last September saw an unprecedented effort to impose mandatory quotas on a number of EU member states to accept a proportion of the refugees currently in Europe – generally something that is only for national states to decide. But Britain already has an opt-out from this policy area, and is not subject to any quota! Ireland and Denmark also have an opt-out, but they voluntarily agreed to quotas. In any event, it’s also doubtful that the quota will even be applied – a number of EU states are doggedly opposed to it.

The Prime Minister’s decision to accept 20,000 refugees over five years was entirely his own. It may or may not have been made because of pressure from EU partners like Germany, but we’d be under the same pressures even if we weren’t part of the EU – even a Farage-led Government would, presumably, continue to accept phone calls from Merkel. It’s called diplomacy and it long predates the common market.

Thirdly, let me also debunk some potential Eurosceptic arguments that the EU is a factor in the refugee crisis.

People have put it to me that the EU is acting as a “pull” for refugees and that that constitutes the key reason why we’re seeing such a flow of migrants. I don’t buy this argument for a second and I can see no reason why it has created any additional “pull” factor. The fundamental, root cause of the refugee crisis is deep global divisions in wealth and opportunity and high levels of violence and state repression in certain parts of the world. The Syrian Civil War, incidentally, is just a small part of this much wider problem – Syria was only the third most-quoted country of origin for UK asylum acceptances in 2014/15, with Eritrea (1st) and Pakistan (2nd) topping the list. If we want to stem the flow of refugees, we need to leave the EU debate to one side and start talking about these problems.

Finally, there’s also the obvious point that the borderless Schengen Zone is one of the key reasons why we’ve seen so many migrants make it through to France and to the camps in Calais. If each Member State had controls in place, this would have been a much harder journey. But the EU offers states a great deal of flexibility for border restrictions in “exeptional cases” like this – Schengen Borders Code already allows Member States to suspend borders temporarily for two years! Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Germany and France have already exploited this flexibility. Reports suggest that Germany and Austria, at the very least, will apply for a further renewal of these controls in a summit later this month, and I can’t see Germany not getting its way. The reason we have migrants in Calais is because large land borders have always been difficult to enforce when there are people determined enough to get through them – just ask those living near the US-Mexican or Norwegian-Russian borders.

In any event, Britain isn’t part of Schengen so our leaving the EU would change none of this. We would still be faced with migrants in Calais, and we’d still be having very much the same debate we are today. The right, rather than invoking the EU as the culprit, would just take a leaf out of Trump’s book and turn to other imagined enemies.

I fully concede that many aspects of the immigration debate in Britain are intrinsically linked to our membership of the EU. The pro-EU camp won’t be able to win hearts and minds in the referendum without, for example, articulating a coherent argument for free movement of EU citizens within the common market. But I strongly contest the suggestion that the refugee crisis would go away if we voted “leave”. This denies some fundamental facts of history and demeans the voting public. Sadly, it is an indictment on the left that we’ve not done enough take to take to task those who make claims like this.

[Image: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed, licensed under Creative Commons]

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