The EU has been a destination for migration for centuries. Since the beginning of the 20th century, France, Germany, Austria and Belgium have attracted migrants from all over Europe. Britain also encouraged migration from former colonies to have the workforce needed to support its growing economy thanks to industrialisation. So why are so many European countries fretting about the influx of legal and illegal migrants from neighbouring economically distressed countries?

European law does not regulate the issue of immigration as it is a competence of the member states. Different countries have different interpretations of what integration means. Most countries see migration as a crisis that needs to be resolved with the use of force or an onerous burden that all member states must share.

Others are beginning to admit that Europe will always remain a favoured destination for many migrants. Population growth in Africa, climate change, regional conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, and income differentials with countries bordering Europe are push-factors that will continue to drive people to emigrate to the EU in the coming years.

The influx of many asylum seekers in the last two decades has created substantial administrative, border control, reception and financial challenges in many EU countries and the EU as a whole. Since the integration of third-country nationals remains a competence of the EU member states, the role of the EU institutions is limited. Don’t expect this to change, as the classical EU governance strategy encourages every country’s political leader to put national interests before Union interests.

The term “integration” is defined and applied differently throughout the EU. This means there is no agreement on what integration of migrants should involve. One simplistic way of defining integration is that this is a two-way process in which both the host country and the immigrants themselves are responsible.

This process implies that integration means not only expecting third-country nationals to embrace EU fun­damental values and learn the host language but also offering meaningful opportunities to participate in the economy and society of the country where they settle.

Marginalising migrants on the fringes of society is a defeatist social and economic strategy

For decades, countries like France, Sweden and Germany have tried to implement integration policies to avoid migration becoming a socio­economic and political crisis. The French model of integration used in most of the last century is often labelled a failure. The emergence of ‘banlieue’ – the suburbs of Paris and other large French cities – was evidence of social segregation where migrants living in abject conditions were tolerated rather than absorbed into French society.

Denmark is one of the few countries that has had relative success in integrating migrants into its society. Denmark has a population of about six million, 15 per cent of which is made up of immigrants and their descendants. The country has been updating its legislation and integration policy for third-country immigrants for the past 20 years. The Danish government targeted three groups: asylum seekers and refugees, municipalities and businesses.

Clearly defined metrics were introduced to measure the extent to which immigrants and their children integrate into Danish society. Strict conditions were linked to the degree of their integration into the labour market and their ability to access state benefits. Social benefits were reduced to create a stronger incentive to work. On arrival in Denmark, asylum seekers are homed in a reception centre while their cases are dealt with. After a six-month stay and if all conditions are met, immigrants can take up paid-up work.

Educating and upskilling the immigrants entering the EU will take time. Some member states, especially in southern Europe, are overwhelmed by the flow of newcomers needing to be integrated. The EU institutions often keep spending money to appease countries that insist on introducing immigrant burden-sharing policies. So widespread unease with the growing number of immigrants continues to create social and political tensions.

Paul Collier is a professor of economics and public poli­cy at the Blavatnik School of Government. He argues that a shared sense of identity within a society is indispensable. He adds: “This constitutes the basis of trust, which is a precondition for successful cooperation and coexistence among citizens.”

Integration and shared identity do not happen overnight, as it is a long process which takes time. Still, marginalising migrants on the fringes of society is a defeatist social and economic strategy.

The right but challenging strategy is for governments to increase their demands on third-country nationals in terms of language proficiency, attendance of integration programmes, labour-market inclusion and social integration.


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