A Hungarian soldier stands guard at the Hungary-Serbia border fence (Source: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
As refugees exit trains in the Munich station, a crowd of people cheer them on, handing them candy, water, and toys. Liberals in the US must have these or similar viral images in mind when they think about immigration to Europe. A place where refugees are welcomed enthusiastically, in contrast to the xenophobic rhetoric that surrounds America under the Trump administration. And can you blame them? The narrative in the American media, both left- and right-wing, is one of a Europe with open doors to immigrants. However, contrary to the romanticizing beliefs of many liberals in the US, the EU and its members are not more progressive on immigration policies than the United States.
Recently, artist Chico MacMurtrie gave a talk on his project “Border Crossers” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The project centers around amorphic, robot-like machines whose sole purpose is to cross border fences at the Mexican-American border. It aims to raise questions about the legitimacy of borders between nations; MacMurtrie described his border crossers as a “peaceful gesture over a raw barricade” and said that he is working on letting them cross borders in Europe. The audience, most likely fellow liberals, cheered when the artist claimed it would be easier to implement the project in Europe, since there, “fences are way lower,” alluding to the border-transcending Schengen area within the European Union.
This is just another liberal illusion about European immigration policies. Yes, crossing national borders has never been easier than in the Schengen area. However, this is not true for the EU’s external borders. For instance, Ceuta, a Spanish enclave surrounded by Morocco, is secured by several 20 foot high fences which are equipped with movement sensors. Another example is the Hungarian border fence, which was built in 2015 and might have served as inspiration for Donald Trump’s famous wall.
Of course, immigration is not just controlled through securing borders, but mostly through policies. In the EU, the Dublin regulations to this day give member states the right to deport any migrant to the country where they first entered the Union. Northern European countries especially benefit from this policy, as it allows them to reject refugees without even hearing their cases. Additionally, major politicians have recently been calling for even stricter immigration regulations. For instance, German chancellor Angela Merkel introduced a piece of legislation that would severely limit a refugee’s right to family reunion by capping it at 1000 cases per month. This policy severely contradicts Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the chancellor’s proposal is clearly an “arbitrary interference with (a refugee’s) family”.
Moreover, MacMurtrie talked about the possibility of him being approached by government officials to collaborate on creating robots that secure the American borders. What seemed like a joke to the audience is the bitter reality in Europe, where the border control agency Frontex is currently developing “drone planes, satellite surveillance systems, unmanned ground and marine vehicles, even combat robots” to secure the external borders of the Union. This is just another example of the dichotomy between American liberals’ perception of Europe and the reality as experienced by border crossers in Europe.
In order for Europe to actually become more progressive, it needs to demilitarize its external borders, loosen its tight restrictions on immigration and rethink its core moral principles. This can only be achieved by changing key immigration policies in the EU. Subsequently, we, as people, need to put pressure on politicians both in Europe and the US to change those key policies that hinder fair immigration processes. For starters, this could be achieved by discarding the Dublin regulations and coming up with new policies that are fair to all member states and immigrants. Moreover, the EU states need to harmonize their immigration policies so that refugees have the same chances for asylum in all member states.
If the European Union becomes more inclusive and diverse, it might actually fulfill its role as a figurehead of liberalism in the world. Until then, Europe remains a place to look up upon for American liberals in many policy areas, such as gun control or healthcare, but clearly is not what we make it out to be in regards of immigration policy.