The world watched the Arab Spring unfold with bated breath, hopeful at the possibility of a changing of the guard in North Africa and the Middle East, yet anxious about the possibility — and, indeed, inevitability in some places — of violence against civilians.
Europe, however, confronted an additional fear: That the violence and political unrest would spark a large-scale movement of migrants and asylum seekers towards the European Union's southern border.
Those fears proved overblown: Most European countries did not experience significant inflows of people fleeing the Arab Spring. The two EU countries that took the biggest shares — Italy and Malta — received little more than 50,000 of the nearly 800,000 migrants who fled Libya and Tunisia in 2011 (See Issue #8: The Arab Spring and Other Crises in Africa Displace More Than 1 Million People).
Despite the small inflows, the immigration consequences of the Arab Spring revealed a significant chasm within European policy circles.
When Italy first began receiving migrants from Tunisia and Libya on the tiny island of Lampedusa, the Italian government appealed for broader financial and technical support from the European Union to manage the flow. Italy felt the burden ought to be shared by all and accordingly wanted asylum seekers relocated to other EU Member States. But other Member States objected for a number of reasons.
Some were unsympathetic because they felt that the relatively modest numbers did not warrant a collective response; others objected to the relocation of asylum seekers within the European Union on principle; and still others felt Italy was not justified in asking for support since the country had rather controversially collaborated with former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to prevent migrant inflows of Northern and sub-Saharan Africans in the first place.
Facing little support within the European Union, Italy summarily issued residence permits to approximately 22,000 Tunisian migrants — papers allowing them to move freely throughout much of Europe. In response, the French government moved to close its southern border with Italy and reinstated checks on trains.
This disagreement between neighbors and founding members of the European Union began a new debate on the parameters of Schengen cooperation, not least when Member States might reintroduce internal border controls. The European Commission has published its suggested new rules, though an agreement has yet to be reached.
Europe's reaction to the Arab Spring is perhaps best explained as a problem of mutual trust within the union, compounded by the perception that some (predominantly southern) Member States are shouldering disproportionate responsibility for border management. But the increasingly toxic climate toward immigrants — and to a lesser extent, the European Union — has increased national political sensitivity on the issue.
In this way, the Arab Spring exposed critical weaknesses and exacerbated long-held disagreements within the European Union related to asylum, immigration, and external border control policy matters that spilled over into the operation of the Schengen area, which allows for borderless travel within the 25 signatory countries for those holding a Schengen visa.
If they cannot come to a satisfactory, long-term solution, what will it mean for the future of Schengen — a system dependent on high levels of mutual trust? At the European Summit in June, ministers publicly and unanimously reaffirmed their support of the Schengen system, which is widely revered as one of the main achievements of a unified Europe. However, continued cooperation may prove more difficult to maintain in an environment of discordant national politics and immigration priorities, especially with respect to enforcement and humanitarian assistance.