Governance and Multilateralism

The migration crisis: between sovereignty and history

Since its beginning in April 2015, after the tragic events in the Mediterranean, the European migrations crisis has been dividing the old continent on many levels. The actions taken by Brussels have included the strengthening of the presence in the sea “to increase the search and rescue possibilities within the mandate of FRONTEX”[1]and the fighting of smugglers through the cooperation between member states and organizations like EUROPOL and EUROJUST. This notwithstanding, according to the Eurobarometer, 72% of the Europeans believe that the Union should be doing more in addressing the issue[2].
In 2018, 634,700 applications for international protection have reached the EU, a number decreasing compared to 2017. Yet we are still facing the most severe migration challenge since the end of the WWII. A challenge with different hotspots, located in the different routes used by migrants to reach their safe haven. The Western Balkans route is the third route in terms of crossings, after the central Mediterranean and the eastern Mediterranean ones. Immigrants try to access the Western Balkans from Greece and Bulgaria, before heading out to Hungary, Croatia and Romania from Serbia. In 2017, 12.179 illegal border crossings have taken place in this way, drastically reducing overtime[3]. Notwithstanding the reducing impact of the Western Balkans route on the overall picture, this area continues to be one of the most fragile in terms of migration governance. In June 2015 Viktor Orban proposed to build a wall along the borders shared with Serbia, that would have been completed two years later. After the European Council’s vote in September 2015 for an emergency scheme to relocate migrants among EU member states based on each country’s ability to absorb and integrate, Budapest clearly stated its opposition to the plan. The Visegrad Group, according to the calculous, would have been required to welcome no more than 8000 legal migrants. As a reaction to this, in October 2016 a referendum on quotas took place in Hungary, confirming Orban’s rejection of the EU’s project.
Poland, after Law and Justice went to power in 2015, quickly jumped on the wagon Hungary was leading. The rejection of migration expanded to the entire region and aimed at the European Parliament. Orban’s main goal for last May’s election was to build an anti-immigration majority front, a project that failed and crashed again new ideas of reforming the Dublin Treaty.

The leitmotif of the V4 when dealing with migration had to do with sovereignty in the most deep-rooted way possible. According to the prevalent narrative in the political environments of these countries, decision making on residence permits should have remained in the hands of governments. As argued by the polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki in 2018, quotas on migration were inherently against the freedom of choice of each member state. As a consequence of this stance, Brussels reacted invoking the Article 7(1) TEU[4]against Budapest in 2018, a year after the unsuccessful attempt to invoke it against Poland.
The division on migration between Brussels and the Central and Eastern Europeans (CEE) recalls the Old Europe vs New Europe dichotomy. Western Europe’s idea of multiculturalism was rejected by some politicians from the V4[5]. After the fight for their own independence and the self-determination of their peoples, the idea of a multicultural population distanced itself from the ideal society the V4 want to preserve. The Union’s reproach against the CEE included a critique regarding the lack of solidarity shown by these countries in dealing with the migration issue. One of the most delicate problematics in contemporary Europe is the growing criticism again the Union in countries, like the CEE, that fought for more than fifteen years to “return to Europe”.
As argued by Heather Grabbe, Eurosceptics are largely made, not born. In fact, the difficult path to the membership and the current feeble status of the relationships between the core and the periphery of Europe, reinforces the lack of trust in the Institutions and worsen the terrain for solidarity sentiments. Notwithstanding the missing solidarity in the actions and decisions of countries like Hungary and Poland in reacting to the European requests of burden sharing, the almost non-existent migration governance in these member states has to be understood taking into account other key factors. There is a clear predominance of sovereignty protection over solidarity promotion: acting according to Brussels’ requests would mean challenging and threatening the long-dreamt sovereignty, that these countries conquered just thirty years ago.

The factors that need to be included in the analysis of the issue entail history and memory. The contestation of the Europeanization of migration policies, that sees Viktor Orban as the leading actor, is to be understood from the perspective of the countries taken into considerations. One of Brussels’ main errors has to do with the top-down approach employed to face the challenges coming from East. As interestingly outlined by Milan Kundera, the CEE feel as the victims of European history: never recognized as such by the narratives used by the EU, their position has been worsened by the way Brussels has continued to deal with them. The trauma and the suffering experienced by these countries in their historical past are mnemonic factors that reinforce their feeling of being still victims[6]. The historic occupations experienced by the CEE explain the need to strengthen sovereignty stances over solidarity promotion. The rejection of migration is perceived as a way to avoid this phenomenon to endanger their identity and culture.
Here lies the main mistake of the European governance of migration. Brussels’ manners vis-à-vis the CEE’s negative reaction to the requests coming from the EU, have negatively reinforced the cleavage mentioned before. Hungary’s xenophobic stances should be understood as the direct outcome of specific histories and geographies, while the rejection of the Europeanisation of certain policies as a consequence of the Euroscepticism rooted in the few years before the 2004 enlargement. As the threatening reproach Chirac addressed to the signatories of the letter of eight on the eve of the Iraqi war, the constant accusations coming from Brussels do not help but worsen the old vs new Europe divide, pushing farther any possible solution to the problem.




[1]European Council, Press release, 23/04/2015.

[2]European Parliament Briefing, EU policies – Delivering for citizens, The migration issue.

[3]In March 2018, Brussels finalized an agreement with Ankara, aimed at stopping irregular migration via Turkey to Greece. Migrants arriving to Europe from Turkey with a  rejected application should be returned to Turkey.

[4]“On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.”,

[5]Vít Dostál, A Fait Accompli in the V4, Visegrad Insight.

[6]Maria João Militão Ferreira, Memory, Trauma and the Securitization of Migration in Contemporary Hungary, Portuguese Journal of Political Science, 2018, 9, Pg 45-69.

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