Sat, Jul 23, 2016 - Page 9 News List

The miscalculations behind the quixotic ‘free migration’ project

Giving refugees and migrants EU passports does not legitimize a single labor market, which is why ‘emergency brakes’ on migration within the EU are inevitable

By Robert Skidelsky

This explains an important fact about popular perception: most people in the host countries do not distinguish between economic migrants and refugees. Both are typically viewed as claimants on existing resources, not as creators of new resources. The flight of East Asians from Kenya during that country’s “Africanization” campaign led directly to the UK’s anti-immigration legislation of 1968.

This historical perspective suggests three conclusions. First, anti-immigrant sentiment is not based only on prejudice, ignorance, or political opportunism. Anti-immigrant language is not just socially constructed. Words are not mirrors of things “out there,” but they have some relation to such things. Something cannot be manipulated unless there is something to manipulate. There is little chance of changing the words unless the realities to which they refer are altered.


Second, the era of unregulated mass population movement is drawing to a close. As the “Brexit” vote shows, Europe’s political class greatly underestimated the strains caused by free mobility across borders — a shibboleth of the failed neoliberal project of maximizing market-based resource allocation. Critics of neoliberalism cannot consistently exempt population movements from regulation. Indeed, the fatal flaw of free mobility in the EU is that it always presupposed a state to manage the movement. This state does not exist. Giving people an EU passport does not legitimize a single labor market, which is why “emergency brakes” on migration within the EU are inevitable.

Third, we need to accept the fact that most of the refugees arriving in the EU will not return home.

The way forward is difficult. The easiest steps are those that increase voters’ security, in the widest sense, because such policies are within the control of political leaders. These measures will include not just a cap on the number of economic migrants, but also policies leading to expectation of full employment and continuity of income.

Only if voters’ economic insecurity is diminished is there any hope for active policies to assimilate or integrate refugees, whose numbers Western leaders cannot directly control.

The unsolved problem is how to reduce those factors pushing people out of their own countries.

It might be hoped that economic development in Eastern Europe — or Mexico — will equalize conditions sufficiently to end net flows from one region to another; but ending the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa is altogether more daunting.

Restoration of order and creation of legitimate authority are preconditions of economic development, and it is unclear how this is to be done. In some cases, it might require redrawing borders. However, it is hard to see that happening without years of fighting, or to know how the West can reduce the bloodshed.

One thing seems certain: Without increased security at both ends, political violence will spill over from the Muslim world to its nearest neighbors in Europe.

Robert Skidelsky, professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University and a fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, is a member of the British House of Lords. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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