Forget the Greek Crisis, Immigration Will Divide Europe Against Itself

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Forget the Greek Crisis, Immigration Will Divide Europe Against Itself

September 11, 2015

Europe has complex immigration rules. As the EU web site shows, there are multiple layers of immigration regulations encompassing both the local national level and the EU level.

But, as the recent influx of refugees and economic migrants has shown, the EU government is able to flex its  muscle in an ad hoc fashion in the service of compelling member states to accept the migrants and refugees. The “quota plan” being forwarded by the EU government would divide up migrants and refugees among the EU member states, and, of course, over time, these migrants would qualify for those member states' taxpayer funded public benefits. In Germany, for example, officials “estimate that as many as 460,000 more people could be entitled [next year] to social benefits.”

Big Countries vs. Little Ones 

The proposal could become a mandate if approved by a “qualified majority” of EU member governments, a type of majority that is weighed in favor of the larger members. Most of those larger members are in favor. If adopted, however, one doesn't need to be exceptionally perceptive to see how mandates apposed on dissenting member states could be a source of significant division among member states, and especially, their populations.

Writing in the UK independent yesterday, John Lichfield avers:

North vs south; east vs west; Britain vs the rest; German leadership or German dominance. The refugee crisis is like a diabolical stress test devised to expose simultaneously all the moral and political fault lines of the European Union.

Germany leads to way in calling for more migrants. While part of it is no doubt Germany's ongoing attempt to rehabilitate itself from its fascist past,  there may be other considerations as well. Claire Groden in Fortune notes:

Germany has one of the world’s most rapidly aging and shrinking populations. With one of the world’s lowest birthrates, the country relies on immigration to plug a growing workforce hole. According to one expert quoted in Deutsche Welle last year, the German economy needs to attract 1.5 million skilled migrants to stabilize the state pension system as more Germans retire…According to current official estimates, every third German could be over 65 by 2060, leaving two workers to support each retiree.

Indeed, demographic issues such as these are surely part of the calculus for member states.The German government has likely weighted the benefits of new young workers against the possibility against the cost of those 460,000 new residents. But for other countries less desperate to save an overextended public pension system,  they see mostly costs when it comes to more migrants and refugees.There is a real divide here between Western Europe (especially Germany and Italy) and Eastern Europe (especially Poland and Slovakia) in terms of the percentage of the population that is over 65.

But the divide between different member states, as described by Lichfield, surely goes well beyond this. There are issues of relative wealth to deal with as well. The Germans are rich compared to the Poles, for example, who have already announced they will take refugees but no economic migrants.

The British, who have never gone all-in on the EU seek to maintain control over their own immigrant policy.

But in all cases, those who less powerful within the EU resent taking orders from politicians in Brussels who assert they can direct local policy more effectively than the locals. Yes, the Germans, French, and Italians, who from the largest voting blocs, feel they can reach an agreement that will be good for “everyone.” The smaller, less powerful countries — with good reason — aren't so sure. And were each country free to set its own policy, conflict among the member states would be minimized, but problems arise when Germany, which sees benefits (whether intangible or otherwise) can impose obligations on other member states.

Local vs. Supranational

This isn't to say that national/local policy will always be superior to EU policy. However, there is also no reason to assume national/local policy will be worse.
From a laissez-faire perspective, there are good practical reasons to guess that locally based policy will most reflect local realities. Yes, ideally, only private owners will have say over how property is used. That is, refugees and migrants would only have places to go if private owners, including churches and civic organizations, provided a place for them to live and work. This is what the “blue card” option is designed to maximize.

The private-sector situation is complicated by the presence of a state, but government policy tends to become most untenable the farther it gets from the the most localized level possible. An immigration policy decided at the municipal level, for example, is more likely to reflect the local needs and economic realities of the population. As we move upward, however, policy becomes ever more un-moored from the local economic, geographic, and demographic realities. Once you've reached the supra-national level of an organization like the EU, you're now dealing almost solely in the abstract and dealing with only a tiny number of representatives standing in for an immense population that will be affected by policy decisions. In other words, you've massively centralized and aggregated the knowledge necessary to assess the situation. Thus, good assessments become unlikely.

As I (and many others) have noted before, countries with waiting migrants should try the “blue card” experiment.  Make the border open to anyone who agrees to never be eligible for social benefits. If he (or she) agrees, he may forever work or live anywhere the private sector will accept him. Then we'll see how long the line remains.  Of course, I won't be holding my breath until the EU endorses that one. Rather than turn to the private sector, the EU will simply insist on racheting up centralized control and top-down regulation of the workforce and population.

In this situation, then, some member states may decide they are being bullied by Germany and other large states, which have not considered the true reality on the ground in the member states are are subject to the whims of policymakers in Brussels.  And the perception will arise that costs (in the form of new migrants) are being imposed on other member states. Economists will argue over the true tangible or intangible cost or benefit of new migrants, but what will be important here will be the perception of powerlessness among the smaller member states and their populations.

The locals then become likely to push back. As Lichfield notes:

And yet this crisis seems more profound, more acute, more tangled, more poisonous, than any that has gone before. It is not about currencies or net contributions or farm subsidies but about the core issues of common humanity and solidarity that the EU claims to epitomise…

As it struggles with its greatest ever humanitarian test, the EU is in danger of being wrenched apart. Outright break-up is improbable. More likely there will be an acrimonious acceleration of the existing trend towards scission into a “core” and “periphery” – with Britain and Eastern Europe left in an outer or second division.

Ultimately, the imposed “solutions” to the migrant and refugee crisis may be a signal to many members that the EU isn't quite what they thought it was.

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