Why Europe needs legal migration and how to sell it

Policy brief
20 December 2018

Europe needs migrants, and migration is inevitable. Now, European leaders must articulate a powerful case for opening legal migration channels, rather than defaulting to vote-winning policies of containment and control. 

  • The total number of migrants coming to Europe by sea has fallen by 90 per cent since the peak of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015. Yet the EU’s success in reducing arrivals has failed to silence the anti-immigration rhetoric of the populists.
  • Moderate European politicians face a political challenge and a policy challenge, both of them tough: politically, with the European Parliament elections around the corner, they need to fight anti-migrant, populist forces, while they also have to devise policies to ensure that there is no repeat of the crisis.
  • This task puts governments and mainstream politicians in a tricky position. Leaders tend either to ignore the problem or try to outpace the populists by tilting toward illiberal policies, allowing anti-migrant forces to own the debate. Neither choice is good for Europe.
  • Migration to Europe will not and should not stop. The region’s relative prosperity will attract people from around the world for years to come. If managed correctly, migration tends to be positive-sum: it gives those who want to migrate an opportunity to improve their circumstances while providing more workers for host countries.
  • It is the job of politicians to communicate both these facts to the public – while acknowledging that there is still some work to do if migration policies are to work for both migrants and host societies.
  • EU leaders have made progress in dealing with the first element of any migration policy – curbing irregular arrivals and sending people with no right to stay back. But they must do better on the second part – providing alternative routes for those who still want to come, and whom European countries want to admit. Politicians should take a four-step approach to dealing with migration.
  • First, they should explain that the EU has successfully reduced arrivals in Europe through improved border controls, more cash for countries of origin and transit, and better deals with partners. But they should also point out that this is not enough if EU migration policies are to be sustainable in the long term. The EU needs to find a way to allow some migrants in, without risking either their lives, the stability of the host country, or the integrity of the EU’s Schengen area.
  • Second, leaders should accept that no government would be able to stop migration completely, even if it wanted to. Instead, governments should learn how to manage. It will not be easy to find a consensus among member-states on what to do with asylum seekers. But the question of economic migration is comparatively less complex. There are no internationally binding rules that the EU must follow when deciding what to do about those seeking to move and work in Europe.
  • Third, EU leaders should make a nuanced case for legal migration. Well-managed migration can raise tax revenues, which can then be spent on ageing populations. The EU is the most rapidly ageing region in the world, after Japan. But economic and demographic arguments alone will not reverse current anti-immigration sentiments. A powerful counter-narrative is necessary to answer populist and far-right groups, which wield migration as a weapon in their fight against the EU’s liberal identity.
  • Fourth, European leaders should find new ways to bring people in – without forgetting the trade-offs. The EU has not managed to set-up a common European system to bring migrants legally into Europe, and it may never do so. A more realistic way for the EU to get involved would be for it to support the implementation of bilateral projects between member-states and third countries, with a focus on medium-skilled migration.
  • Such projects would help with the training of migrants in professions that require moderate levels of literacy, like nursing or hospitality management. The EU could help those projects either by disbursing money; or by ensuring that diplomas from partner countries are recognised across the bloc.

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This paper is part of a series on the future of Europe's migration and security policies supported by the Open Society European Policy Institute. 


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