Migrant Crisis in Europe Revisited

The fact that the European Union legislative and executive bodies threaten those EU members, Poland and Hungary, which question harmful policies on reasonable grounds, does not bode well for unity or democracy in Europe. Neither does the fact that Germany, the richest and largest country of the EU, is unable to learn from its mistakes, past and present.

By Maria Juczewska l May 30, 2017

In view of the influx of economic migrants anticipated due to the improving weather, the European Parliament is debating the need for their relocation within the European Union. The open-door policy initiated by Germany in 2015, that caused the crisis, has been contested by Poland and Hungary (and earlier Austria). In response, the European Commission threatened those two EU countries with sanctions. The migrant crisis is typically discussed in terms of compassion and solidarity. Meanwhile, there are other important aspects to consider.

As usual, the devil is in the details. The first mistake is the persistent perception of migrants as “refugees.” Two years of observing the phenomenon provided ample evidence that “refugees” are overwhelmingly able-bodied young men – not weak, old, and sick. What is more, they prefer countries with high welfare benefits as their final destinations, justifying the moniker of economic migrants with an analogous situation in the recent European past that may allow us to predict the likely course of human events in Europe. Namely, similar problems, albeit on a smaller scale, appeared in Germany itself in the 1970s.

After the Second World War, Germany introduced liberal immigration policy to encourage low-skilled, low-wage labor into the country. Recruitment took place in Italy, Yugoslavia, and Turkey as well as Morocco, Tunisia and even Korea. The labor force was called Gastarbeiters – “guest workers” – which implied the hope of the German government at the time that one day the migrants would return to their countries.

By 1973, there were 2.2 million of these workers in Germany and their presence had already led to problems. It was in that year that the procedure for the recruitment of a low-skilled workforce abroad was officially stopped, partly owing to the increasing social tensions. In spite of the expectations of the German government at the time, guest workers were not returning to their home countries. They remained in Germany and helping their families to join them. This situation not only became a considerable burden to the German social welfare sector but also a challenge in terms of integration. Children of the newcomers, who used their native languages at home, were not able to speak fluent German upon going to school. In this way, the influx of low-skilled workers from distant countries had far-reaching consequences that reverberated throughout German society for a long time.

Despite the economic and social cost incurred in Germany by massive pro-immigration policy of 50 years ago, in 2015 the German Chancellor encouraged even large scale migration of low-skilled labor once again. Only now more than one million young men – unskilled, unable to speak European languages or work until their legal status has been decided – flowed into Europe not over a period of ten years but two years. That quick pace of arrival is going to make integration for them more challenging than for those who were coming to Germany from exotic countries 50 years ago.

Here, an American reader needs to remember as well that the European Union is not a federation like the United States. EU members are still autonomous nation states – each with a particular character, strong national identity, and a long history. Almost all of them have their own national languages, often much more complex than English. Economically speaking, the Western countries of the EU fare much better than the Eastern ones. This advantage stems from the economic support of the Marshall Plan after the Second World War and 50 years of economic development unimpeded by communism.

Ever since the EU labor market opened to the citizens of the new member states in the East, their youngest productive generation have been moving out en masse to look for better paying jobs in the Western EU countries. The newcomers from the Middle East and North Africa, already disadvantaged by their low qualifications and inability to speak EU languages, will have to compete with the local workforce who are much better equipped to work in Europe. Continuation of this policy is likely to lead to increasing unemployment among the lowest-skilled creating social tensions typical for large predominantly male groups remaining idle for longer periods of time, not to mention all the problems related to long term integration.

Unfortunately, none of the biggest players in the EU are ready to admit that allowing for the massive influx of migrants might have been a political and economic mistake. All the evidence provided not only during the last two years but also troublesome results of a similar pro-immigration policy in Germany 50 years ago has been ignored.

Instead, two member countries – Poland and Hungary – that openly question present EU migrant policy are threatened with sanctions for not allowing for the relocation of these migrants into their areas. Mass media regularly comment on their lack of solidarity with other European Union countries, characterizing them as ungrateful and indifferent to human suffering.

Meanwhile, one of those two countries, Poland, since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, has opened its borders to more than a million refugees – the Ukrainians that are fleeing war on the eastern border of their country. Poles dutifully accept their responsibility as an EU and a NATO member. They have not demanded that any other country in the EU help them deal with the steady wave of newcomers from the east. They provide favorable conditions for relocation and employment to the Ukrainians not making a big deal out of it. What is more, they also help Syrian refugees – but on the ground, in Syria. One third of humanitarian help to families in the city of Aleppo is provided by the Poles through Polish Catholic charities.

Poles support practical solutions. They are hospitable to people in real need who are willing to work honestly. They help potential refugees in the war zones, trusting that improving their situation at home is the best way to prevent massive movements of people. They expect their government in Warsaw to defend common-sense policies and the interests of their constituencies on the European forum. One would think that this a valuable input into a political structure that is meant to strengthen Europe and make it a viable partner in international relations.

The fact that the European Union legislative and executive bodies threaten those EU members which question harmful policies on reasonable grounds, does not bode well for unity or democracy in Europe. Neither does the fact that Germany, the richest and largest country of the EU, is unable to learn from its mistakes, past and present.

Maria Juczewska is an MA candidate in International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC where she is an associate director of the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Ms. Juczewska is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.