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Comment: EU 2024 elections could herald a trade policy of the ‘returns coordinator’

The far-right shift in European Union mainstream politics is set to reach a new stage in the coming parliament elections. It has already infected the EU’s trade policy as witnessed by interinstitutional negotiations over trade preferences for developing countries.  Will the infection spread  to other trade policy areas in the coming new parliamentary term?

“Freedom originally meant nothing more than being able to go where one pleased,” the great twentieth century political philosopher Hannah Arendt reminds us in The Promise of Politics.

“Wealth and economic well-being (…) are fruits or freedom”. More than mere ‘free enterprise’, they are the result of “mild government”, Arendt also writes in On Revolution.

The growing impingements on the freedom of movement across borders in Europe and, relatedly the entry of far-right, xenophobic parties and thought patterns into mainstream politics herald a new type of era of meddling bureaucracy and restrictions to personal freedoms.

The prosaic world of business and trade that may not have time to read Hannah Arendt cannot however just remain blind to the problem.

The far-right may often be using a pro-business and superficially pro free trade language in its campaigning. But by seeking to compartmentalise, exclude, micro-manage human relationships across borders, it is as business stifling as any other more left wing government enacting an environmental or labour-right bureaucratic measure so often despised by business or that very political right.

Europe’s inability to face up to the fact of migration

The trade policy world in the EU has until recently been spared having to deal with the fallout from the gradual far-right shift in European minds and politics.

The only exception is those who have dealt with Brexit.

The Brexit referendum process – before and after – was shaped by racist attitudes against hard-working second-class EU citizens from Poland, Romania and the like and by racism in the sense that the EU was seen as a source of migrants from Türkiye, Syria and elsewhere.

The UK’s tribalist anti-foreign wave has weakened the rule of law there and severely damaged the country’s trade relationship with its main economic partner across the Channel and Irish Sea.

Some trade experts have since then quipped that the biggest ‘non tariff barrier’ to trade in the United Kingdom is its Home Office.

This precedent is useful to look into for those in the trade policy world who also look at Brussels. They simply can’t keep ignoring or denying the fact that far-right mainstreaming is upon us in the EU – or think business can go on as usual.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson’s infamous “F**k business!” is not a mere joke. Ask British business, which suffers from labour shortages, higher import costs, and less market access abroad.

Tory radicalisation is expected to cost the United Kingdom their seat in power in the next election – the Brexit revolution has run its course. But the dehumanisation of the country’s immigration policy, started under David Cameron, is here to stay.

Nativist politics has also moved to the heart of the Brussels policy machinery. The far right mainstreaming in the EU capital is less showy than in the US perhaps, because mediated and shaped by developments in 27 EU member states, but no less pernicious.

No serious economic thinking about migration at highest political level

The new shift in emphasis was made clear when Ursula von der Leyen appointed a new European Commission vice president in charge of ‘Promoting the European Way of Life’ in 2019.

It is revealing that former Italian premier Enrico Letta’s report on the future of the single market which he presented at the last European Council in April does not consider migration as a means to improve the EU’s economic performance and productivity, given its demographic imbalances and skills gaps.

The report came out more or less at the same time as the International Monetary Fund’s Kristalina Georgeva warned the European Union that it needed to consider migration to boost its fledgling single market.

Last April, the Financial Times quoted her thus: “We have an ageing population in Europe. And immigration is not an easy topic,” the Bulgarian said. “But despite all the agitations [over migration] in the United States, the inflow of immigrants makes a huge difference to the US economy. Whereas in Europe, that is not so much the case.”

Letta, who has been a think tanker in France since he left politics, authored a book in 2017 on the importance of strengthening and uniting the European Union: Faire l’Europe dans un monde de brutes.

Letta has nothing of a xenophobe and the book says nothing outrightly shocking about migration: there is praise for the cultural diversity it brings and stresses the fact that migrants are needed for economic reasons.

But several little phrases in the book raise eyebrows to the alert reader. One is this one: “[I] t is clear that this diversity becomes a problem when the population is no longer in the majority in the country”. Yours truly has not seen demographic projections indicating that anything like this is expected to happen.

The Letta sentence is an indicator of European deep-rooted existential fears. It is on these fears – whom nobody in charge in government counters, to the contrary – that the “great replacement” theorists of the lunatic extreme right of Europe thrive.

‘Pathological’ EU migration policy?

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde* has defined the current mainstreaming of far-right policies and thinking in Western and other democracies a “pathologization of normalcy”. Mudde defines this “a radicalization of mainstream values, supported by sizeable minorities, if not pluralities and majorities”.*

The pathologisation of nativist discourse has already produced a pathological EU migration policy.

The overarching emphasis of migration policy over the last two commission terms has been on ‘returns’ and ‘readmission’ policy. In other words: expulsions, deportations. The overarching goal of the EU is to ensure that people whose asylum claims are rebutted are effectively sent away.

The commission is building a bureaucracy around this. The Pact on Migration and Asylum adopted this May has the returns policy as its central thread.

“Returns do not feature in the Pact’s title, nevertheless they are a red line running across all of the Pact,” writes Madalina Moraru from the European Union Institute on the regulatory proposals initially tabled in 2021.

The series of legislative measures adopted introduce a mandatory expedited return border procedure, create an EU ‘return coordinator’ in the commission, tie asylum and return procedures and increase solidarity between member states in taking migrants or financing migration management.

The commission has single-mindedly focused on increasing return numbers in a context where it seems absurd to do so. It has signed around 25 ‘readmission’ agreements with countries in its neighbourhood, South Asia, and Africa over the last twenty years.

A 2021 European Court of Auditors report examining the “effectiveness” of the EU’s returns policy showed that among the top ten countries for which the highest “non-returned” migrants were present on EU soil in the period 2014-2018 featured Syria, Afghanistan, Morocco, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, India, Bangladesh, and Guinea.

One wonders why indeed the 25000 (each) annual Syrian and Afghan refugees waiting to be ‘returned’ and the close to 17000 (each) Pakistani, Iraqi, or Algerian exiled persons were not granted asylum in the first place. We all know about the violence and turmoil in their countries at the time.

This is at least 100 000 people every year rotting away in Europe and not working, not paying taxes, not having a life.

Expecting these migrants to leave or their countries to ‘take them back’ is not only inhumane: it is unrealistic. And yet: the bureaucracy keeps on asking for expulsion targets to be met.

‘Infecting’ the GSP regulation overhaul – and more in future?

The expulsion-focused policy pathology is infecting trade policy.

The opening shot was the review process of the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences for poor countries.

I had the opportunity to ask an official from DG Trade on why the European Commission included new conditionality, asking developing countries to comply with any readmission agreement with the EU or its member states.

The civil servant said this was because migration was one of the cross-cutting policies of the commission that needed to be ‘mainstreamed’ across all polices including trade.

The commission temporarily backtracked on this conditionality. The European Parliament’s lead negotiators in the trilogue – Heidi Hautala, vice president of the parliament and a Green group member from Finland and Bernd Lange a German social democrat and chair of the international trade committee – opposed it. The GSP regulation was extended for four years as it is, without changes.

But the issue is bound to resurface after the elections.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron, for instance, has not given up on his country’s wish to get the GSP regulation changes through.

In his April EU speech noted in international security circles for the notion that the EU is “mortal”, he homed in on conditioning the continuation of trade preferences for developing countries to them taking back their migrants.

“We want to maintain an open economy to remain the great commercial power that we are,” said Emmanuel Macron.

However, he also added: “The return of irregular migrants to the country of origin must be one of the key axes of our visa policy and our trade preferences in terms of conditionality.”

The second statement contradicts the first. A shrinking economy with major demographic imbalances and labour shortages that is focused on keeping out migrants cannot sustain a status as a global commercial power.

So-called ‘illegal’ migrants are not illegal by nature but made artificially ‘illegal’ by a very narrowly defined asylum policy combined with the near impossibility legally to move to the EU and start a new life there.

Business versus the migration restrictors

The EU’s framework for ‘legal’ economic migration, recently analysed in depth by scholars at the Brussels think tank CEPS Sergio Carrera and Anjum Shabbir, was found “fragmented, sectoral, and selective”, “utilitarian”, “inhumane”.

It is made of “discrimination-by-design” and lacks a “human dignity-centric approach corresponding with the EU’s foundations”.

Business has started to become more vocal about the migration issue.

The recent threat by the Dutch semiconductor firm ASML to move the country’s headquarters if the government – soon including the far right party of Geert Wilders in its coalition – restricts access to foreign migrants is a sign of ever sharpening conflicts to come: fanciful policy not grounded in facts led by populist-tinged, supposedly mainstream, governments vs the realities of the EU economy.

The problem is that firm lobbying in a restrictive environment will lead to short term, limited, sector-specific measures.

The above-cited Carrera and Shabbir report highlights that the panoply of piecemeal measures to admit selected migrants – from Blue Cards to temporary agriculture labour working permits – are fragmented and merely utilitarian: they offer no foundation for stability be it for the concerned – or even for employers.

It’s a humane free-people-movement environment that counts for prosperity – not bureaucratic short-term focused ‘permitry’ in a mean-minded parochial political environment.

The EU’s migration policies are also proving toxic in relationships with developing countries at a time when it needs more allies than ever.

Crossing a rubicon?

Sadly in the short term the Europeans’ mindset will not shift.

If and when revived, the revamped GSP regulation will likely pass muster under the next parliament, if current opinion polls prove correct. The fragile coalition of parties that opposed the migration conditionality in the new GSP regulation – parts of the social-democrats and the Greens – will be weaker after the elections. In contrast, the populists and radicalised ‘centre’-right are expected to gain power.

Also the freshly appointed ‘returns coordinator’ created by the new migration pact will be keen to leave her mark.

A spot to watch is how the new EU migration pact will affect Brussels’ trade policy more broadly now that the migration rubicon has been crossed.

President Macron could well soon find that Europe will have brought “mortality” onto itself by neglecting the human factor.

A continent of ageing voters will have failed to come to terms with the humanity of the 21st century – this will come at a high cost, and not only of its economy and status as global trading power.


* Cas Mudde, The Far Right Today, Polity Press, 2019.

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