Europe’s Fear of Migrants Makes for Bad Foreign Policy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The European Union has agreed to a naval deployment in the Mediterranean to enforce a much-violated arms embargo, announced in Berlin in January, against the warring parties in Libya. This new operation is in line with the declaration by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, at the recent Munich Security conference: “Europe has to develop an appetite for power.”

But Borrell has since clarified that the naval vessels could be withdrawn if they became a “pull” for migrants trying to reach Europe via Libya. Indeed, this fear was the reason ships have been withdrawn before, and was the main contention over this latest deployment. Europe, it would appear, loses its appetite for power when faced with rickety boats filled with migrants.

In Munich, Borrell lamented that the EU’s consensus system often restricts action. There is no greater shackle on the EU’s foreign policy than the collective paranoia about migration, especially irregular migration. An obsession with blocking migrants has weakened the EU’s ability to credibly press for policy changes among its southern neighbors; it has at times allowed those neighbors to extort payments from the terrified Europeans.

In 2015, following a surge in asylum seekers coming from Turkey to Europe via Greece in 2015, the EU agreed to deliver 6 Billion Euros to Ankara, to cover the cost of hosting as many as 3.6 million refugees. The implementation of this agreement has been spotty, but Turkey has largely delivered on its end of the deal: migrant flows along the Eastern Mediterranean route dropped from 882,000 in 2015, to 82,000 in 2019. 

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, keenly aware of Europe’s fear, has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” during disputes with the EU. Most recently, he threatened to do so in response to European officials labeling Turkish military operations in Syria as an “invasion.”

Perhaps the most disturbing manifestation of the EU’s fear of migration is its funding of Libyan “coast guards,” generally aligned with militias, to intercept boats carrying migrants. The list of abuses by these militias is as extensive as it is horrifying, ranging from imprisoning migrants in a zoo, to torture and murder. They are accused of selling migrants into slavery, including sexual slavery.

Although EU and United Nations officials are aware of the problem the funding of these militias continues.

The former head of the EU’s foreign service, Pierre Vimont, argues that the rise of xenophobic populist leaders in Europe is to blame for the EU’s Libya policy and will increase the number of migrants trapped in Libya. But in fact, it is the fear of losing votes to populists that has informed the approach of many in Europe’s political establishment. Too often, they accept the populist narrative of a migration crisis rather than counter it with a sober review of the facts.

As a result, the Europeans are deferential even to Middle Eastern and North African countries that are not substantial transit points for irregular migrants. A leaked paper from the European External Action Service and European Commission suggests that the EU views Egypt, with its population of 100 million, as a potential source of more irregular migrants. Egyptian officials are happy to use fears of an economic crisis that would precipitate mass migration to pressure European officials, whether to suppress criticism or secure concessions.The irony is that Europe needs migrants in order to address its labor shortages. As its population ages, the European commission predicts the ratio of working-age members of society to pensioners will fall from 3.3 in 2016 to just 2 in 2070. This will place enormous strain on the labor market and on state budgets to provide for retirees. A significant increase in migration can help mitigate this challenge, while allowing countries with more labor than jobs relieve pressure on their markets.

Borrell himself insisted on this solution when he was Spain’s foreign minister in 2018, arguing that Europe needs “new blood” and criticizing the use of the term “mass migration” as sensationalist and inaccurate. As early as 2016, studies indicated the arrival of a large number of asylum seekers would significantly and quickly add to GDP growth in receiving nations.

As the EU’s foreign-policy chief, Borrell should convince member states to recognize what he did as Spain’s foreign minister. Otherwise, the EU’s foreign policy will always be a hostage to its unfounded fear of migrants—and its southern neighbors will continue to capitalize on this fear. And his efforts to mobilize Europe into action will result in untenable naval deployments that can be compromised merely by the appearance of boatloads of migrants.

To contact the author of this story: Timothy Kaldas at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bobby Ghosh at

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy Kaldas is an independent risk adviser and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. 

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