Freedom of movement

Hostages to xenophobia

Published on 13 May 2011 at 11:02

After peaking during the war in former Yugoslavia, Europe’s tradition of welcoming refugees is disappearing, pressed hard by populist movements. José Ignacio Torreblanca reports.

One fact perfectly illustrates how far Europe is moving into the abyss of xenophobia: the abolition of internal controls between European Union member states got underway in 1995 when, as a result of the war in Yugoslavia, Europe had to cope with a flood of more than 600,000 refugees. Germany alone took over 345,000 people in an effort that was little known and even less recognised, but other countries also stepped up to the mark: Austria took in 80,000, Sweden 57,000, Switzerland 25,000, the Netherlands 24,000 and Denmark 20,000.

Nobody backed down then or doubted that getting rid of border controls was a good idea. Now, however, a few young men from north Africa and the prospect of electoral defeat by the far right have put Berlusconi and Sarkozy, leaders of two of the most prosperous countries in the world, to flight.

In the EU there are 20 million non-EU immigrants, which represents only four percent of the population. With the exception of Estonia and Latvia, which have significant Russian minorities that have not been nationalised, no country has more than eight percent of immigrants from outside the EU. To make matters worse, this Europe of twenty-seven states that wants to preach democracy and solidarity to the whole world actually helped out in 2010 by approving just 55,100 applications for asylum.

That Rome and Paris wanted to entice Brussels by offering it greater responsibilities is within the realm of the comprehensible. But that the European Commission, which is the guardian of the treaties, should have been willing to sell so cheaply a principle of European integration as key as the free movement of people is truly worrisome.

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