EU needs to work out a generous migrant quota and then stick to it
Published 04/09/2015 | 02:30
The influx of the refugees into Europe is the greatest issue the continent has faced since the start of the financial crisis in 2008. Depending on how we respond to it, the refugee crisis has the potential to transform European politics, to transform the welfare state and to transform the societies in which we live.
There can be no hiding place. Sitting on this island of ours on the edge of the Atlantic, we imagine that the problem is as far away, as distant and remote as Adolf Hitler's takeover of the Sudetenland in 1938.
Angela Merkel doesn't see it that way. Germany has agreed to take in an incredible 800,000 asylum seekers this year, equal to 1pc of its population. Proportionately speaking, Sweden is doing something similar.
Ms Merkel does not believe that countries like Ireland and Britain are pulling their weight. We've agreed to take in an extra 600 over two years. That is pathetic. It is pure tokenism. It's surprising that a Government which includes the Labour Party would agree to take in so few people.
European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy claims it's the most we can do. Defence Minister Simon Coveney echoes that sentiment. He says we have been "generous" but must not be "naïve".
I argued in this column three weeks ago that we must be "generous" but also "sensible" in our approach to the issue. However, I don't think what we're doing so far is very generous.
Allowing for our population size, if we were being as generous as Germany, we would be letting in 46,000 people, not the 540 we initially agreed to plus the additional 600.
Germany is richer than Ireland, but it isn't 50 times richer, which is what the discrepancy between what we are doing and what Germany is doing implies. Nor is Sweden 50 times richer than Ireland.
Fergus Finlay says we ought to let 4,000 asylum seekers into the country. I'm not going to argue with that figure, but nor am I going to try and upstage him by suggesting it should be 8,000, never mind 46,000. It is too easy to grandstand on this issue.
Every single person who plucks a figure from the air needs to be asked a straight-forward question; where is the money going to come from?
Should taxes be increased? Should we cut the health budget, the education budget or the welfare budget? Actually, it would be almost impossible to cut any of those budgets because bringing in thousands of extra people would put additional strain on the health, education and welfare systems unless they could all find gainful employment very quickly. But we still have 10pc unemployment in this country.
Basically, every member state of the EU needs to work out its capacity to absorb asylum seekers. Each country needs to work out its physical and economic capacity to do so because they might not be the same thing.
Notably, Denmark, even allowing for its population size, is not accepting anything like the same number of asylum seekers as neighbouring Sweden. This isn't a question of economic capacity. It's a question of political capacity. Anti-immigration feelings run stronger in Denmark than in Sweden.
Does this make the Danes more racist than the Swedes? Not necessarily. To borrow Mr Coveney's word, maybe the Danes are simply less "naïve". Maybe the Swedes are biting off more than they can chew, politically and economically. Maybe the same applies to Germany.
Or maybe the Danes simply like Denmark as it is and don't want its character to change too much more than it already has. It is obvious that immigration changes both the immigrants and the country they move to, especially if they move in large enough numbers and from a very different society. There comes a tipping point at which the nature of the host society will change.
The host society might not be better or worse as a result. It will simply be different and people are entitled to like the culture and society they have now.
I have no real idea what capacity each EU member state has to absorb refugees. Let's say for the sake of the argument that the EU agrees to take in five million refugees over the next two years and grant the vast majority of them asylum. What then? That is, what do we do with the undoubted millions more who will follow in their path, hoping for the same deal?
If we have a capacity, and beyond that capacity our economies, our societies and our political systems start to strain at the seams, then we need to have the will to ensure we are not brought beyond our capacity.
This is where things get really tough because ensuring we are not taken beyond our limits will mean enforcing the borders of Europe and that will mean turning desperate people away, which is what the Australians are doing with their 'boat people', despite Australia having a generous immigration programme that currently allows in about 200,000 people annually.
After that, we need to do whatever we can to stabilise the countries the would-be asylum seekers are coming from. This is a lot easier said than done. For the most part, we seem to specialise in destabilising the parts of the world we go near.
When America overthrew Saddam Hussein, it did not properly engage in the necessary task of nation-building, to put it mildly.
When Britain and France assisted in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, no proper thought was given to how Libya would be stabilised post-Gaddafi.
To use Mr Coveney's word again, we were extremely "naïve" about the Arab Spring and what it would bring about.
In Syria, we don't know what to do or who to support. Should we simply back the lesser of all the competing evils to the hilt and help whoever that is to win and thereby bring an end to the civil war and the Syrian part of the refugee crisis?
Or should we carve out safe zones in northern Syria and some part of northern Iraq where refugees can reside until they can go back to their homes?
This would require boots on the ground, of course, and it's doubtful whether Western electorates currently have the stomach for that.
Perhaps this will change as the scale of the refugee crisis, which is also a migrant crisis, dawns on us once and for all and the public appetite to do something comprehensive grows.
So this refugee crisis confronts us with immensely difficult questions, questions that are not going to go away.
They are different in kind but just as hard and as challenging and as divisive as the questions the economic crisis has faced us with.
First and foremost, however, we must decide how many asylum seekers we will allow in and then how we will handle all the additional people who will also want to come in after them. Anything else is morally delinquent.