William Nattrass is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Prague and covering Central Europe.
The new disagreement between the Czech Republic and Slovakia over temporary border controls should worry everyone in the European Union.
Prague’s unilateral decision to impose the controls came after a 1,200% year-on-year increase in the number of people entering the country illegally – most of them young men from Syria. And with another bitter dispute also erupting between Italy and France over migrants rescued at sea, it’s clear that the long-delayed conversation about the EU’s long-term mass migration goals must finally take place.
These checks show that in the face of a growing crisis, freedom of movement, so central to the European project, is now under threat. And at some point the EU will have to face the fact that while migrants’ desire for a better life is understandable, the status quo in migration policy – emphasizing the redistribution of those who enter the bloc rather than deterrence – promises no long-term solution for the suffering migrants or the latent discontent of EU citizens.
Although strict anti-migration measures are imposed by some countries, current migration flows across the continent exploit free movement. And only an international approach that preserves the internal coherence of the Schengen area has a chance of being sustainable.
However, the first prerequisite for such an approach would probably be an end to the demonization of hard-line political parties on migration. This does not necessarily mean admitting that they were right, but simply accepting that migration is becoming an increasingly important issue for EU citizens – not less – as evidenced by the recent election victories of these parties.
Currently, too many people in Europe lazily dismiss those with a hardline stance on immigration as ‘far right’ or ‘extremist’. Indeed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s threat to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing coalition ahead of the country’s elections suggested that she did not trust Italy’s new government to defend the EU values.
Yet it is important to remember that there is more than one way to protect EU values. And just as the rule of law must be preserved, the appropriate limits on EU-wide freedoms must also be maintained.
Moreover, the idea that free movement is threatened by massive migration flows is no longer a fringe opinion shared only by Meloni and his conservative ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. To justify his country’s border controls with Slovakia, the Czech Republic’s very pro-EU Interior Minister, Vít Rakušan, also invoked the same principle.
Accepting the validity of these concerns, EU institutions must therefore focus on solutions that lie at the bloc’s external borders. So far, however, the Commission’s position on deterrence has been marked by inconsistencies; endorsing Poland’s “tough” stance against migrants trying to enter the EU via Belarus – a hotspot of terrible suffering and deprivation – on the one hand, but punishing Hungary for a ruthless stance on its border Serbian on the other hand.
Frustration over such inconsistency has now led Hungary, Austria and Serbia to strike their own deal, aimed at ending what they fondly call ‘asylum tourism’, with a police presence. reinforced at the northern Macedonian border and at the expulsions from Serbia.
As a result, EU leaders are now protesting that their strategy of focusing on the redistribution of asylum seekers is being hampered by countries on the front lines of the migration crisis. But given the criticism they have long faced for their attempts at deterrence, it is understandable that these countries are skeptical of EU attempts to bring the problem under control.
And that is before even considering the effectiveness of redistributive systems, which, in their ideal, are still only band-aid solutions to meet the long-term challenge of mass migration.
Whether people have the right to seek asylum in Europe simply because they want a better life is open to debate, and the socio-economic consequences of mass migration vary so much across Europe that it is impossible to draw general conclusions.
What is beyond doubt, however, is the suffering that results from attempts to enter and cross Europe illegally. Ending this suffering is the only indisputable moral imperative raised by the migration crisis – and the only realistic way to achieve this is through deterrence, by preventing people from trying to enter the EU other than through official channels. .
Of course, this will mean more policing all around the EU periphery because, as the controversial Czech border controls have shown, stopping illegal migration outside the bloc’s borders is the only way to preserve freedom of movement within it.
Mass migration is not the “invasion” some politicians like to call it. Yet the EU can no longer kick the streets, claiming that the mere redistribution of migrants is something close to a permanent solution.
Instead, it is time for the EU to prioritize its own internal cohesion, because our failure to manage migration may well end up rendering the privileges of modern European life – the same privileges so cherished by migrants themselves – unsustainable.