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The Ostrich Approach to Migration

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It came as little surprise when Austria announced its decision not to sign the Global Compact on Migration (GCM). But rather than creating a scandal it all looks rather sad. International cooperation on migration and asylum will continue, regardless of the self-destructive approach of one or two little land-locked countries. Along with Hungary, Austria has its head in the sand, the Austrich, trying to deny that migration exists.

The reasons given for not signing were a mishmash of conspiracy theories and red herrings: the suggestion that the plan is to create a human right to migration; that it mixes up migration and asylum; other arguments that barely merit consideration.

In fact, there are two things that Austria and Hungary don’t like. First, the GCM acknowledges and seeks to support the human rights of migrants, while these two countries want to deny their rights as part of a de-humanising narrative. Second, the GCM facilitates pragmatic and necessary international cooperation, which is anathema to nationalist politicians who would rather score points with nativist minority domestic constituencies than contribute to the functioning of the international system. Indeed, both countries benefit substantially from the global movement of people but by refusing to contribute to the framework for its humane and effective management they show themselves to be free-riders.

Orbán and Kurz line up with Trump who – also unsurprisingly – is following in the junior Bush’s American Exceptionalism approach. This is the idea that the US has a special exemption from international cooperation and certainly international law. The argument used to be made that this is because it already abides by the standards set out, weak at the time and now laughable in the context of migration. Sometimes described as “strongmen” leaders they look more and more like petulant children, unable to work with the adults in negotiations to develop agreements of mutual benefit. Certainly, the statements and walk-outs staged by the Hungarian delegation during the GCM process were simply embarrassing. Imagine feeling threatened by non-binding agreements that set standards and seek to manage global challenges.

The EU’s response to the Austrian announcement is encouraging, it criticises and expresses bemusement about the decision – while also noting the constructive role that Austria had played early on (under the previous government) to highlight what it means to have an influence. The EU needs to go further and take full advantage of the Lisbon Treaty provisions, which establish the legal basis and define the EU as an independent foreign policy actor.

Under Article 47, the EU is imbued with legal personality meaning it can sign and become party to international agreements. Why not sign the GCM directly? It needs the agreement of a majority of the Member States and the consent of the European Parliament, which should be forthcoming. (They can join the 85,000 Austrians who have “signed” the GCM on behalf of their country in just 2 days.) The EU can sign up to agreements when “it is necessary in order to achieve within the framework of the Union’s policies, one of the objectives referred to in the Treaties”. Arguably the GCM is necessary to meet the Treaties’ provision on migration (TEU Art. 67) and the objectives of its external action (TEU Art. 21.1).

Politically, EU external action has been based on multilateralism and must continue to be, otherwise it becomes an expensive exercise in self-contradiction. If signing up to the Compacts proves impossible then the EU – the Institutions and the majority of the Member States which still live in the real world – should support implementation of these agreements, including in Europe. The Global Compact on Refugees in particular has potential if it is also applied in Europe rather than seen as something that Europe supports others to do. Indeed, the speeding up of international cooperation on migration and asylum stems from the political crisis in Europe of 2015/2016. It caused some resentment from the major refugee-hosting countries as it seemed that the international community was more ready to “help” Europe than to help them, while they take on proportionally far greater responsibility for the displaced. In this context, Europe could at least try to take advantages of these processes and certainly be prepared to apply them.

There is of course fear about more conflicts on migration damaging European unity. But it is Austria and Hungary who damage unity, for example by siding with Trump rather the rest of Europe. The EU needs to stand up for humane, effective, and pragmatic approaches to migration, as embodied migration in the GCM. Otherwise we will all be dragged down into the sand with the ostriches.

Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Secretary General for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)