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Fabrizio Tassinari. The Unraveling of Europe's Peace

June, 2011

COPENHAGEN—The European Commission recently unveiled long-awaited measures to bring neighboring countries in the Mediterranean and the former Soviet Union closer to Europe. On the same day, another department of the same Commission presented proposals aimed at curbing visa-waiver programs for some non-European nationals. Few missed the irony of formulating two plans that pointed in opposite directions.

Attracting neighbors has long been a noble aspiration—and something of a European specialty. The European Union's embrace of post-communist republics in Central Europe represented a most powerful symbol of the reach of Western liberal democracy.

In today's neighborhood, where EU expansion is not in the cards, Europe hopes to shore up its presence by opening its huge internal market and increasing assistance. Crucially, the Commission's recent proposals include the creation of “mobility partnerships” with Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, aimed at facilitating travel for local students and businesspeople.

By contrast, the proposed restrictions on the visa-waiver program include “safeguard clauses” that would temporarily suspend access to Europe's Schengen area, most likely for those from Balkan countries. This is controversial enough: the decision is motivated by a large influx of asylum-seekers, often offering frivolous reasons, originating from Serbia. But visa liberalization has been the main concrete signal of Europe's goodwill towards this neglected backyard, which dreams of joining the EU. Whatever this plan's impact in practice, the political message is clear: when in doubt, Europe is better off sealing its borders.

The same Janus-faced approach is evident in Europe's response to the Arab Spring. After a lukewarm reaction to the uprisings, Europe was eager to show its support for democratic movements in the region. At the same time, with boatloads of migrants arriving from Tunisia, some rather drastic measures have been adopted. A recent dispute between Italy (the main port of arrival) and France (the principal final destination) ended with the French reintroducing border controls.

In an unrelated move, Denmark did the same, ostensibly to prevent cross-border crime. To its credit, the European Commission also issued strong calls to member states for better legislation and practices concerning migration. But there is a clear correlation between unrest at the EU's doorstep and Europe's irresistible instinct to keep trouble at arm's length.

For once, the rot is not in Brussels, but rather in a growing number of European capitals. The case of Italy is instructive: “human tsunami” is the unfortunate phrase used by senior policymakers to warn against the possible flood of migrants. But, almost six months into the North African upheavals, the number of arrivals on the southern island of Lampedusa has reached roughly 30,000. By comparison, Sweden, with one-sixth the population of Italy, accepted the same number of asylum-seekers in 2009. Italian officials privately confirm that the current figures are not unmanageable.

The problem for Italian officials, as for the other governments concerned by the recent migration flows, is the pressure of right-wing populist parties, which no longer need to be on the defensive. The case for openness, inclusion, and diversity in European societies has become much harder to make. Not coincidentally, mainstream leaders, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to British Prime Minister David Cameron, have caught up with the current mood by deeming European multiculturalism a failure.

This turn of events comes at a price. The genius of modern Europe has consisted in linking long-term stability to the pursuit of ever-deeper economic and political integration. For the past half-century, this has represented Europe's revolutionary recipe for peace, and has served as something of a microcosm of globalization. The ever-freer and faster flow of capital, labor, goods, and ideas found in the EU a model and a forerunner. Free movement of people within Europe constitutes this visionary project's most tangible feat.

One unintended effect of the Arab revolutions is that the link between security and integration that forms Europe's foundation is decoupling. The advantages of pooling sovereignty and resources ring increasingly hollow to ordinary Europeans. Governments find it more politically rewarding to pursue security by erecting administrative or physical barriers.

As election campaigns beckon in some of the countries that are now debating immigration controls, this trend is unlikely to be reversed any time soon. But Europeans should make no mistake about the consequences. Opposing Europe now means not only standing up to an unelected behemoth in Brussels, as Euro-skeptics would have it. Nor is it merely about questioning the sources of Europe's influence in a fast-changing world. Unraveling the nexus between security and integration means nothing less than rejecting the formula of Europe's peace.


Fabrizio Tassinari is Head of Foreign Policy and EU Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He is the author of Why Europe Fears its Neighbors.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011