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Mark Leonard

What do Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Boris Johnson, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have in common? All are beneficiaries of the new wave of global migration. Whether demagogic, barbaric, or merely opportunistic, such leaders capitalize politically on migrants no less than human traffickers and makers of fences and razor wire capitalize on them economically. And for those whose fortunes depend on building mental and physical barriers, business is good.

Some 240 million people today are living outside their country of birth – enough to form the world’s fifth most populous country. The swelling number of migrants is shaping how people regard globalization, etching a new dividing line between cosmopolitan elites and nativist parties in the developed world, and calling into question the future of the European Union. As Project Syndicate’s commentators recognize, all of this is creating a new governance agenda. And yet, while few topics are more politically salient, international migration is – almost by definition – one of the most difficult issues for nation-states to address effectively.

Push and Pull

The reasons for the ongoing upsurge in global migration are complex. The current level of refugees – roughly 60 million – is at a post-World War II high and continues to rise. The push factors are well known. The international development expert Kevin Watkins sees a cocktail of conflict, political persecution, poverty, and economic pressure, exacerbated by the geopolitical tensions unleashed by the end of American hegemony in many regions. The former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer blames ongoing stagnation in the Western Balkans, turmoil in the Middle East, and civil war and conflict in Africa, all of which may be compounded by an intensification and expansion of fighting in Ukraine.

In addition to heightened refugee flows, there is the divide between the world’s richest and poorest. Migrants are often a critical economic lifeline to the countries they leave, with remittances adding up to “some $500 billion a year worldwide,” according to Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann. “For countries such as Armenia, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Moldova, Nepal, and Tajikistan, expatriates remit the equivalent of more than one-sixth of national income – an amount that often exceeds exports.” As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan puts it, “Migration will continue until we lift the poorest and most vulnerable out of the conditions they are currently fleeing.”

But making global inequality the sole culprit is facile. There was far more absolute privation a generation ago; since 1990, more than one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. And yet, at the same time, the rapid emergence of the Internet – and especially smart phones – has raised expectations, by making everyone aware of the yawning gap between the life chances of the rich and poor worldwide.

Pull factors in the West also center on economic issues: Annan refers to the need in many European countries for workers to fill skills gaps, perform unwanted jobs, and replace an aging and shrinking workforce. He also cites research showing that Germany alone will need 32 million immigrants by 2035 to maintain a sustainable balance between its working-age and non-working-age population.

The Angry Quarter

The economic imperative of migration has, however, done nothing to mitigate its disruptive political impact in developed countries. As the Anglo-Dutch author Ian Buruma recognizes, “Taking in refugees, or any immigrants, has never been an easy political sell.” But the current wave of migration comes at a time when representative democracy is under pressure worldwide. According to Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, “In the rich part of the world, roughly a quarter of the electorate seems to be furious, disillusioned, and divorced from mainstream political parties and allegiances.” In all developed countries, there is a sense that the age of opportunity is coming to an end, and that future generations will have less scope for advancement than their parents had.

Politics has therefore become a contest over shares of an ever-shrinking pie, which has led to a re-assertion of identity politics, according to which newcomers can succeed only at natives’ expense. Left-behind voters who think of themselves as a cultural majority increasingly fear being treated like an oppressed minority. The political representation they seek necessarily reflects – and affirms – their anger and desperation.

As a result, mainstream parties of the left and the right clearly are being left behind as well. Traditional parties of the left have become the political vehicle of public-sector workers, the professions, and the creative industries – leaving the old industrial working class feeling voiceless. On the right, established parties’ close ties to metropolitan financial and business elites has left social conservatives and rural communities feeling abandoned. New parties and movements are shifting politics from the traditional left-right division toward what Bildt calls “a contest between advocates of open, globalized societies and defenders of inward-looking tribalism.”

Managing the Flows

Anti-immigrant populist forces, with their narrative of betrayal and victimization of native-born citizens by traitorous cosmopolitan elites, have benefited from a widespread sense that governments have lost control of their countries’ borders. In many countries, a new standard of political success is emerging, based on the ability to stop people from entering – which is measured by the number turned away. Given the strength of the push and pull factors driving the flows, adhering to this standard will be as logistically challenging as it is morally dubious.

I recently examined the ways that many countries are trying to turn the movement of people into a currency of power. “New Colonialists” like China have been able to benefit economically and flex their geopolitical muscles by settling millions of their nationals overseas. “Integrators” like the Islamic State have managed to attract people from all over the world and build fighting forces around them. And “go-betweens” like Turkey have managed to blackmail others by threatening to open their borders. But is it possible to think about systemic solutions rather than national tactics?

So far, the EU in particular has found it impossible to do so. According to Dambisa Moyo, “The EU’s current myopic, reactive response to mass migration is driven by a zero-sum view of the economy that ignores the far-reaching effects of domestic policy.” EU policymakers are “focused almost exclusively on immediate measures and short-term outcomes,” when they should be “attempting to dissuade mass migration by encouraging and supporting fundamental, long-term economic and political development in countries that are impoverished or wracked by civil strife.” Intervening “after the fact, with pledges of aid and emergency resettlement schemes…ignores the root causes of migration,” Moyo argues, and thus “is unlikely to be effective in the long run.”

The question therefore is whether the world can move past what former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio calls “crisis-mode policymaking” and find ways to manage the flow of people that uphold the rights of all. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Refugee Protocol forbid member states from returning refugees to territories where they may be in danger, but no mechanism for enforcing this norm exists. The World Trade Organization, which has proved to be an effective regulator of international flows of goods and services, has no institutional counterpart for managing international flows of people.

No one understands the need for such a mechanism better than Peter Sutherland, the WTO’s founding director and currently the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. Sutherland argues that leaders should seize the opportunity provided by September’s UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants to establish one. His agenda is straightforward: use the summit to create safe and legal pathways for refugees to seek asylum in the developed world and to generate commitments to specific improvements in the international protection system aimed at reducing the vulnerability of all migrants.

At the same time, Sutherland advocates for legislative changes that would enable refugees to become active, contributing members of their new communities, particularly through labor markets and schools. This could include commitments to resettlement programs, temporary visas for work, study, or humanitarian reasons, and labor-matching schemes and private sponsorship.

But can such commitments really be sustained? Annan argues that the world needs to agree on new policies that benefit countries of origin, transit, and destination, with four goals in mind. First, a new social contract between migrants and citizens must be forged, according to which migrants integrate and citizens recognize the economic benefit of immigration. Second, new labor should be directed at filling skills gaps, unwanted jobs, and vacancies created by an aging workforce. Third, the 9% rent taken by middlemen from remittances must be reduced or eliminated. And, finally, a quick, fair, and open international asylum system must be established.

Easier said than done. Palacio diagnoses the core problem as a lack of rationality about the problem at hand. An effective policy response, she argues, should start by pursuing governance reform, economic development, and the establishment of basic human security in source countries. Only then should policymakers establish legal channels for migrants who either deserve protection under international law or possess skills that could benefit destination countries. These channels would be accompanied by repatriation regimes for those who meet neither criterion. “Careful consideration,” not “piecemeal and panicked measures,” lies at the heart of effective management of migration flows.

Europe’s Future

The flow of refugees into Europe is small compared to developing countries such as Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey. But the burden is not being shared equally, and the refugee influx coincides with other factors driving migration flows within Europe, such as economic malaise in the southern eurozone and the Ukraine crisis. As a result, the political solidarity that underpins the EU is breaking down.

Indeed, the refugee crisis has divided the EU’s Eastern and Western member states more completely than the Iraq war did in 2003. It has led to a collapse in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity at home and severe erosion of her influence on the European stage. It has accelerated the marginalization of the EU institutions in Brussels and, as Daniel Gros, Director of the Center for European Policy Studies points out, it has jeopardized the survival of the border-free Schengen Area. And migration has fueled the most immediate threat to the EU: the United Kingdom’s upcoming referendum on whether to leave it.

The former EU high representative Javier Solana worries that widespread fear of immigration’s strain on economies, labor markets, and cultures could stoke the xenophobic nationalism that led Europe into World War II. And Solana is not alone in his concern that Europe is in danger of destroying the values that make it so attractive. The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy bemoans the way “Europe, harassed by its xenophobes and consumed by self-doubt, has…forgotten what it is.”

But what is to be done?

Sutherland rejects the idea that Europeans can insulate themselves from the flow of people in neighboring countries: “It is time to accept the facts: walls, fences, and patrolling warships cannot stop the flight of desperate people. What they do is aggravate the dangers migrants face on their journey and benefit the smugglers who prey on them.” Sutherland claims that in 2015 alone, smugglers earned a staggering $5-6 billion from migrants crossing into Europe.

The philanthropist George Soros calls on the EU to “respond with a genuinely European asylum policy that will put an end to the panic and unnecessary human suffering.”

For starters, Soros argues, the EU should resettle refugees as quickly as possible, with a minimum target of 300,000 annually. It should also support frontline and transit countries, establish safe passages to the EU, and initiate a voluntary matching program for businesses to recruit refugees into the workforce.

These initiatives would be expensive: Soros estimates that a minimum of €40 billion ($45 billion) will be required annually for the next 3-5 years. But the EU could draw on the combined €60 billion borrowing capacity of the European Financial Stabilization Mechanism, the European Financial Mechanism, and the Balance of Payments Assistance Facility, as well as leverage the eurozone’s healthy credit rating to issue bonds. Doing so, Soros believes, would not only cut down on the long-term costs of addressing refugee flows, but would also generate much-needed economic stimulus. The EU could then turn to institutional innovation, such as creating a common EU refugee agency and border force, and establishing shared standards for receiving and integrating refugees.

The problem with today’s disintegrating Europe is that any well-conceived plan that requires a degree of burden sharing is vulnerable to attacks from populist parties within many member states. Until all European leaders recognize the collective benefits of joint action, the more enlightened member states will be forced to act alone. And, as Sutherland points out, some member states have realized that they can gain economically from investing in integration of refugees. For example, Germany has budgeted over $100 billion to integrate refugees over the next five years and passed a law to ensure access to language lessons and the job market for recent arrivals.

But Swedish journalist and activist Paulina Neuding thinks that viewing the problem solely in terms of “logistics” would be a mistake. “The refugee crisis in Europe is more a matter of culture than of numbers,” she argues, pointing to the rising incidence of sexual assaults on women and girls by gangs of young male asylum-seekers, as well as harassment of gays and Christians at asylum centers in Germany and Sweden. Unless this aspect of the integration challenge is addressed head-on, only Europe’s populists will benefit from official “political correctness.”

In both cultural and logistical terms, the steady stream of refugees arriving in the EU demands an innovative response, but one that also embodies a return to the EU’s founding principles. As Watkins says: “The lesson of the migration crisis…is clear: Fortress Europe is not working. The EU must map out a new approach. When it does, its own values will be the best guide.”

* Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.