It’s time for a Gestalt shift from curbing ‘irregular’ migration to pursuing integration for mutual benefit.
Policy on asylum and migration is the hottest topic in the fight to preserve democracy in Europe. Far-right parties are using the issue to poison societies and thus pursue the destruction of democracy. For many reasons, they encounter approval from a large number of citizens, fed by a wide variety of insecurities and fears.
Last month, leaders of European Union member states took decisions on people movement, from which they expect regulations to follow that will settle their societies. However, they did not remove any of the obstacles hitherto to a solution.
There was still no answer to the question of a solidarity-based ‘distribution’ of asylum-seekers / refugees / migrant workers—who for sure represent legally different categories but must be bracketed together politically for a calming response. There was no incentive system for the reception of refugees. And the underlying expectation that more returns could ease the situation is illusory, because of the small number of possible deportations.
The decisions by the Council of the EU will thus not bring about a socially tangible reduction in ‘irregular’ migration. The theme will continue to be at the disposal of the far right, for incitement, electoral success and the dismantling of democracy.
Change of perspective
Yet there are alternatives that serve both the indigenous and those arriving, which correspond to the humanitarian standards Europe propagates. In the face of the far-right threat, anyone who does not engage courageously with them is acting in a democratically irresponsible manner.
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These alternatives first bring about a change of perspective. Instead of aiming to lock individuals out of Europe against their will—following a zero-sum politics in which purported gains for locals come at the expense of losses for people on the move—we can frame policy such that a ‘win-win’ situation emerges for all concerned.
First of all, this means that municipalities, as sites of integration advantageous to all, should have a say in the uptake of newcomers, and indeed that citizens participate in the decision. This would considerably reduce the initial potential for incitement, arising from a feeling among the citizenry that decisions are being taken over their heads.
The decision to admit those on the move must be voluntary and supported by positive financial incentives, in such a way that the financing of integration is matched by the financing of additional municipal projects independent of integration. There have been positive experiences with this procedure in municipal German politics in the arena of inclusion policy.
Matching needs and offers
So that newcomers can ‘fit in’, there should be a ‘matching’ system. Municipalities would indicate their needs and offers on their home pages, while those arriving would address themselves to suitable municipalities with their offers and needs. Such matching methods are currently being tested experimentally.
Finance for municipal reception would be provided by a ‘European Fund for Municipal Development and Integration’. This would have to be contributed to by all European states, including those that did not accept arrivals. The hosting states and their municipalities would have the advantage that their municipal investment requirements would be better covered.
If municipalities take in refugees with participatory decision-making, they can weigh up the pros and cons of admissions more soberly. Because of demographic developments and increasing demand for labour, in addition to humanitarian motives, there are many grounds for recognising a long-term interest in admitting people on the move, whether as asylum-seekers or migrant workers.
Instead of forcing through costly and often humanly dubious returns, one should promote a change of track and secure as many refugees as possible for the labour market and thus for successful integration through comprehensive training programmes. The current economic situation offers unusually good opportunities: European countries are in desperate need of workers in various professions.
Many cities and municipalities have indeed recognised the cultural and economic benefits of well-organised diversity. The Council of Europe network of Intercultural Cities (ICCs) stands out: more than 160 cities around the world have been attracted to join it, directly or indirectly, since its inception in 2007. Members appreciate the opportunity to share good practices and draw on the programme’s accumulated experience in tapping the ‘diversity advantage’ of well-managed integration.
At a conference in Lisbon to mark the tenth anniversary of the ICCs, network members and others present declared themselves both ‘[c]oncerned by the rise of authoritarian populism which instigates fear of open, diverse and inclusive societies, and erodes human rights, democracy, equality and justice’ and yet ‘[i]nspired by the example of societies & cities which nurture a culture of welcoming and inclusion, even in the challenging circumstances of significant numbers of newly arrived refugees and migrants’.
One of the good practices developed by ICCs members to resist the far right has been ‘anti-rumours strategies’, pioneered in Barcelona. These have sought to debunk the xenophobic myths propagated by the populists by developing a network of local actors using creative tools for public engagement.
A recurrent challenge identified over the years has been that member cities have often had to pick up the pieces of refugee arrivals, without having the necessary resources to do so. In Norway, this challenge has been met by a funding formula, which provides a per capita payment to the municipalities for refugee reception. This in a context where the association of local authorities and central government in Norway have regular formal meetings to discuss the management of cultural diversity.
A subtle reason for the success of the ICCs programme has been the breadth of support it has cultivated. For those on the liberal-left side of the political spectrum it chimes with a humanistic and solidaristic perspective, while moderate conservatives can embrace the message that diversity is ‘good for business’.
Oslo, which has been Europe’s fastest-growing city of recent decades, embraced this demographic surge in a public-awareness campaign called ‘OXLO’ (Oslo extra large). Recognising it competed for specialist labour worldwide—and that ‘foreigners’ would not choose an intolerant city—it located its intercultural work in the department also responsible for business development and elaborated an OXLO Business Charter, promoting diversity in the workforce. Finland has made workforce diversity a theme of its industrial policy, recognising its advantage, for instance, in enhancing innovation, as research in Germany has confirmed.
The positive experience of the ICCs programme has now been translated into a model framework for Council of Europe member states—including, of course, all those in the EU—to develop national intercultural-integration plans, within their specific arrangements for multi-level governance including regions and municipalities. Endorsed by the Committee of Ministers on behalf of the 46 member statesin 2022, this template for ‘managing diversity as an opportunity’ can provide the basis for progressives to rebut the fear-mongering campaign against ‘migrants’ which the far right will undoubtedly launch ahead of the elections to the European Parliament in June.