[Leonid Bershidsky] Immigration politics aren’t really about immigration

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Nov 27, 2018 - 17:07
  • Updated : Nov 27, 2018 - 17:07

A toothless United Nations document is stirring up political trouble throughout Europe, nearly toppling one government. The overreaction to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration shows how immigration politics have decoupled from the reality of people moving across borders.

In July, the text of the Compact was approved by all 193 UN member states -- except the US, which had pulled out of the talks earlier.

Member states are supposed to sign it formally at a special conference in Morocco next month. There’s nothing in the document to stop them from doing so; it’s a nonbinding, good-natured declaration of intent to collect data on migration, adopt data-supported policies, not to violate migrants’ human rights and to make honest attempts to integrate immigrants.

And yet it has proved politically explosive. Enter US President Donald Trump. By withdrawing the US from the Compact, he set an example for other anti-immigrant politicians: not signing the pact has become a matter of sovereignty.

“Our decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone,” Nikki Haley, then-US ambassador to the UN, said in December, adding that a global approach to the issue was “simply not compatible with US sovereignty.”

The text of the agreement specifically takes care of that objection. The Compact “reaffirms the sovereign right of states to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction.”

That hasn’t prevented Hungary from following Trump’s lead. At a press conference with Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto branded the pact as “the betrayal of Europe.” Strache agreed, and Austria won’t sign.

The line to the exit has lengthened. Australia has pulled out, while Poland, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Bulgaria have indicated they won’t either. In Estonia, discussions about the Compact almost triggered the collapse of the government. Pro Patria, one of the junior partners in the ruling coalition, has agitated against the cabinet‘s decision to approve the pact. If the Baltic state’s lawmakers now vote it down, Estonia won’t sign.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has suggested the renegades simply weren’t that familiar with the document. “Had they read it,” he said, “they would have remained inside.”

Except, they have read it all right. The pact’s opponents have nothing against discussing the text.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn, a candidate to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, wants to debate the document at the party’s conference in December -- and perhaps put off signing it until a public discussion has been held. The nationalist Alternative for Germany party has slammed the Compact, based on a pretty one-sided but substantive analysis of the text. The AfD claims the UN document “only names the rights of ‘migrants’ and the duties of destination country citizens” and calls it a “hidden resettlement program for economic migrants fleeing poverty.”

Importantly, the Compact doesn’t hold that some reasons for migration, like wars, may be more valid than others, such as poverty. That has angered nationalist politicians: The distinction between humanitarian and economic migration allows them to call for limits on immigration while avoiding accusations of inhumanity.

The UN document also avoids applying the terms “legal” and “illegal” to migration -- as much of a red line for Strache’s Freedom Party as for Republicans in the US.

As for the pact’s nonbinding character, at least some of its opponents appear to view it with mistrust. It would still be binding morally and politically, and could leave governments open to legal challenges, commentator Adam Forisek wrote on a pro-government Hungarian website.

In reality, the wording of the Compact will change nothing about migration patterns, integration policies, labor market demands, security arrangements or deportation practices. The poor, the downtrodden and the victims of violence will keep seeking a better life away from home, and wealthy nations will treat them according to which party is in power.

A coordinated multinational effort to resolve the thorniest migration issues and work out optimal integration policies doesn’t require a nonbinding pact signed by every country. A smaller group of governments willing and able to work on solutions could make binding agreements, which could include some common funding and multinational pilot projects.

Today, the world lacks a crop of leaders capable of such momentous deals. As a result, immigration politics have turned into an exercise in providing verbal clues to tell identity voters whom to support. The debate is about buzzwords like “sovereignty” and “border security” rather than immigration itself.

Leonid Bershidsky
Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. -- Ed.