E.g., 10/02/2023
E.g., 10/02/2023
European Project Dealt a Blow with Brexit Vote and Challenges to Migration Management

European Project Dealt a Blow with Brexit Vote and Challenges to Migration Management

Brexit dgeezer Flickr

Concerns about national sovereignty and rising migration motivated many British voters who favored leaving the European Union. (Photo: dgeezer/Flickr)

The European Union (EU) faced one of its greatest existential crises in 2016 with the surprise vote by the British public in June to make the United Kingdom the first EU Member State to leave the 28-member union. The decision, fueled in part by public unease over rising immigration from the European Union under its free movement regime, sent shockwaves across the continent. Aside from the practical ramifications of Britain’s decision to leave (termed “Brexit”), which will see the European Union lose a sizeable share of its budgetary contributions (16 percent in 2015), the referendum outcome was a symbolic blow for both the permanence of the European project and its signal achievements.

The British vote to remove the second-largest EU economy from the union was motivated in large part by the desire to reassert national sovereignty over policy areas that had seen strong EU influence, including control of immigration. Since 2010, British policymakers had pledged to significantly cut net immigration from more than 300,000 to “tens of thousands,” but had been unable to do this in large part due to the free movement of EU nationals. This perceived lack of domestic control over immigration, coupled with concerns about the pace of change in local communities, was a key driver of the Leave vote. These factors have also informed the government’s still incomplete strategy for implementing Brexit, with plans to introduce curbs on EU immigration once Britain leaves the European Union (likely in spring 2019). This decision takes aim at one of the cornerstone EU achievements—freedom of movement—and has important consequences for the future relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe. Any curb on the rights of EU nationals to move to the United Kingdom and work there undoubtedly would be reciprocated with similar controls on British nationals living and working on the continent. Recent Cabinet statements point to the introduction of a work permit system for EU nationals, focused on skilled migration with visas allocated to different sectors, and to possible curbs on student migration. Crucially, British curbs on EU migration would also likely result in the United Kingdom being forced to leave the European single market, in which membership depends on accepting the free movement of people. Such a move would have significant ramifications for business and trade relations on both sides of the Channel.

Migration: A Major Point of Contention

Issue No. 3 of Top Ten of 2016

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The Brexit vote and the unfolding primacy of immigration in the subsequent UK-EU negotiations come at a time when the European Union’s ability—and even authority—to effectively manage migration is under assault. Several European Commission proposals to share the burden of the migration crisis more equitably have faced resistance among Member States. Some Central European countries strongly opposed the Commission’s efforts to redistribute refugees and asylum seekers from frontline states such as Greece and Italy according to a quota system (calculated on factors including population and wealth), with fines for states that opt out. In October, 98 percent of Hungarian voters rejected these EU proposals—though low turnout invalidated the referendum result—and a subsequent constitutional amendment proposed in Parliament to block these proposals narrowly failed to pass. And across Europe, Member States have been reluctant to participate in burden-sharing programs: between September and November 2016, the European Union had secured just 19,000 places for relocation out of the 160,000 places it had proposed.

Meanwhile, the Schengen passport-free area—another key EU achievement—remains de facto suspended in parts of Europe. Following a spike in the number of migrants and asylum seekers traveling northward through Europe, five members of the Schengen zone—Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Norway—instituted temporary internal border controls. These have been extended through January 2017 amid continued concerns about managing spontaneous flows. Such setbacks have fed into a euroskeptic narrative about the uncertain future of the European project—one that is being fanned by the rise of right-wing populist parties in several European countries (for more on this, see Issue #5: As Publics Fear Loss of National Identity, Far-Right, Populist Movements Gain Strength).

Limited EU progress in forging a common response to migration management has been mirrored at the international level. Numerous high-level summits were held in 2016 to address the record levels of displacement, but fell short of producing an action plan to address the systemic drivers of these flows. (For more on these summits and the state of global displacement, see Issue #4: For Every Step Forward on Refugee Protection, Two Steps Back amid Record Displacement).

Future Uncertain for European Project

In the absence of concrete action at the regional or multilateral level to address the crisis, individual EU Member States such as Germany have taken the lead. Efforts have focused on building partnerships with non-EU countries to try and stem unauthorized migration. For example, Germany was the architect of the EU-Turkey deal, signed in March 2016, in which Turkey agreed to secure its maritime and land borders and accept the return of migrants from Greece. In exchange, the European Union promised to resettle up to 72,000 Syrian refugees, provide up to 6 billion euros in funding for refugee populations in Turkey, lift visa restrictions for Turkish nationals traveling to EU countries, and revive EU accession negotiations. Member States are also pursuing bilateral arrangements with key origin and transit countries, including measures such as investment pledges and favorable travel or trade conditions to incentivize cooperation on border enforcement and returns.

Even as the events of the past two years have illustrated the limits of national responses to migration crises, the European Union faces an uphill challenge to reassert its ability to offer viable solutions. Brexit and uncontrolled migration flows have challenged two of its landmark achievements—free movement and the Schengen passport-free area—and these advances will remain under considerable pressure in 2017 as Brexit negotiations begin and euroskeptic populist parties look to make gains in the Dutch, French, and German elections. Enacting the far-reaching investments and policy reforms needed to address these migration challenges hinges on the issue of political will: Can the European Union address this growing skepticism in the European project and reassert its leadership in order to effectively respond to these issues?


MPI Research


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