Thursday, 30 June 2016

The EU, refugees and migration

An alternative to Brexit that helps refugees and workers

Summary. This post proposes an alternative to Brexit that makes all EU citizens better off and helps refugees better. Let's add to the refugee convention the condition that if you help refugees in the region, you do not have to house them at home. The real problem of migration is not the migration itself, but the reduction in bargaining power of the average worked. Rather than restrict the freedom of EU citizens to work elsewhere, we could also improve the bargaining power of the workers in other ways. If we then also stop the neo-liberal projects TTIP, CETA and Euro, the EU becomes an attractive way to collaborate for all European citizens.

Brexit, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. We should talk about the EU, refugees and migration.


The European Union started as a peace project, as a collaboration based on two industries that were crucial for war: coal and iron. It is often still sold as a peace project. That is certainly an aspect, but I think that this part is oversold when people point to Europe's violent past. The EU sure helps. However, also outside of the EU the frequency of international conflicts is decreasing. The benefits of war have decreased, most capital is nowadays in humans and organisation and cannot be easily plundered. The costs of war have also increased with nuclear and chemical weapons. The spread of democracy and the absence of war itself makes war less likely.

If leaders and countries acted rationally the EU might no longer be necessary for peace in Europe. Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in The Netherlands, Nigel Farage in England and Donald Trump in the USA make clear that we should not count on every leader making a cost benefit analysis. The wars in Yugoslavia and Ukraine also warn us that war is possible in Europe. Peace is one of the benefits of the EU and one reason why right-wing extremists do not like it.

The main benefit of the EU is that is allows the citizens of Europe to collaborate and stand up against economic powers. Environmental problems belong to this category. Where powerful companies pollute to make more money, while people with less power have to deal with the consequences. This power abuse increases inequality. On a national level, it is the role of the government to solve such problems. The polluter can, however, threaten to go to another country. International collaboration by setting environmental standards make such threats less credible and makes it easier for governments to serve their populations.

Many environmental problems are naturally also international, for instance, pollution of large rivers and acid rain, and natural candidates for collaboration to avoid international conflicts. A study just out this week tried to estimate the impact of European political measures to reduce air pollutants. It found that:
The reduction in PM2.5 concentrations [very small particles in the air] is calculated to have prevented 80 000 (37 000–116 000, at 95% confidence intervals) premature deaths annually across the European Union, resulting in a perceived financial benefit to society of US$232 billion annually (1.4% of 2010 EU GDP).
Those 80 thousand bodies and 1.4% of GDP is for small particles alone. Add to this all the other pollutants, workers rights and consumer protection. National laws would on average be less strict because firms would nationally have a stronger negotiation position. More people would die, more economic damage would be done. Socializing losses is a money making machine. In this case avoid investments in cleaner technology or selling more cheaper lower quality products increase the private gains at our costs.

People need to collaborate to reduce tax competition between countries. The rich and especially their money are more mobile and they can threaten democracies to pay their taxes elsewhere if the rates for the rich and large companies do not go down. That means that the lower 99%, you and me, will have to pay more, which is why incomes did not increase for most groups in the last decades, while most of the new wealth went to the super rich. The EU should coordinate taxes much more and especially get rid of national tax tricks to allow foreigners to pay less taxes than local people. The EU does this too little, but without the EU we can stop dreaming of achieving more justice here.

What amazes me most about the Leave campaign in the UK is that they managed to portrait the EU as the establishment and themselves as the defenders of the normal man. In reality both campaigns had their elites behind them and leaving the EU would make the UK establishment more powerful. Rupert Murdoch supported the Leave campaign because politicians in London do what he tells them to do. Last time I looked Rupert Murdoch was member of the establishment and not a working man trying to get by.

Rupert Murdoch supported the Leave campaign because politicians in London do what he tells them to do

Yes, the EU also does terrible things. A democratic institution will not always follow your preference; if you like that, try to become a dictator. The establishment naturally also sees that the EU is their main opponent and lobbies to make the EU do what they would like. This is facilitated by the fact that the media does not report much on the EU and much can thus be done behind the back of the people, which means that politicians do not have to fear losing their jobs for doing the bidding of the establishment. We should pay more attention and organize to make sure that our lobbies are also in Brussels.

Well know examples of terrible neo-liberal EU projects are the trade agreements TTIP and CETA and the Euro. Europe is not a banana republic, our courts do their job well and there is no need for special TTIP private courts so that corporations can threaten governments who want to improve living conditions. It is an assault on our democracies. If the EU presses through TTIP or CETA, I will stop being reasonable and from then on I will be anti-EU.

The Euro is a mess, it has many, many problems. We should slowly move out of it.


The increase in the number of refugees is not just an EU problem. Improved information and travel possibilities means that more people are travelling further to find a safe home.

It is not just an EU problem, but currently the the Bush-Blair war against Iraq has resulted in many people seeking refuge from violence in the EU, which in turn produces tensions within the union. A closer EU foreign policy could have prevented this mess. (The misinformation campaign for the Iraq war is comparable with the Brexit campaign; in both cases the Anglo-American population did not do their due diligence and did not punish the information sources that lied to them.)

Most countries on Earth have signed the [[Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees]], which obliges them to act humanely and accept refugees. The duty to protect refugees is international law.

Most people have an empathetic side that wants to help people in need, as well as a tribal side and many do not like too many people from other groups coming to stay with us. If you put yourself in the position of a native American that instinct can make sense. In retrospect it was a monumental mistake to let Columbus and Co. get away alive.

In response to the growing numbers, the refugee convention has been hollowed out by making it very difficult to enter a country and ask for asylum, as well as by the principle of secure third countries, which results in sending refugees away without investigating their case. As a consequence many thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe and Australia has set up an disgusting system of lawless concentration camps.

I would propose to add two principles to the convention:
1. That when a country helps refugees in the region they come from, they are no longer obliged to house them in their own country. But only then.
2. That refugees can also send a request for asylum by mail, so that people are no longer dying trying to cross the border.

The current refugee crisis started with insufficient aid for the refugee camps along the Syrian border where people were literally hungering. This new legal principle would make such cases of neglect less likely, because it would have consequences. If we do our part to help locally, it should be no problem that asylum can be requested by mail, because they could then be rejected.

Helping refugees locally is also better for them. We may be rich, but a refugee who is used to a normal culture will have a hard time accustoming to the cold and impersonal European societies. Next to all the other culture shocks. Even without considering cultural differences, staying in the region makes it easier to maintain social ties and to go back home when the problems are over.

Staying in the region makes it easier to maintain social ties and to go back home

We will not be able to help everyone locally, especially in case of small groups or individuals. A gay man who is threatened in Russia is helped most easily by granting him asylum in Europe.

These two new principles would strengthen the right of asylum, help refugees better and reduce the number of refugees coming to Europe. Racists will not like this solution, but for the majority who experience a mix of empathy and concern, this should be a good solution. For people in favour of a multi-cultural society this is a good solution because it helps refugees better (and there will be enough diversity left).


Refugees and migrants are often seen as one category, but they are fundamentally different. A refugee needs our help. To allow the partner and children of a refugee to live together would be migration, but seems to be a no-brainer as well for people with some empathy.

Economic migration is a different case. Even when it is good for a country, it may not be good for all segments of society. One reason we have democracy is to make sure that all interests are represented.

For the elite migration is mostly nice. By definition the migrants see migration as a benefit. And the elite has other options, thus if they migrate that is normally because they see clear benefits. Even before EU citizens could work everywhere in Europe it was normally possible for scientists to work elsewhere because of the importance of migration for science. Science is highly specialized; there is no labour market in Germany for my specialization.

Many other professions are similarly specialised and professionals with high salaries were normally allowed to work in another country. Also a sufficiently wealthy pensioner will be happy to be allowed to migrate to another (warmer) country. Living in another country a few years can be very enriching.

If you are less well off, the possibility of migration of cheap labour can be used by firms to reduce your bargaining power and you may end up with an even lower salary or without a job. The region the migrant comes from looses a valuable labourer. Migration can thus be used to increase inequality even more. Even for scientists from wealthy countries migration makes the negotiation positions weaker and thus labour conditions worse. But it is good for science and for scientists from poorer countries.

Salaries are determined by bargaining power, not by productivity, which is undefined for individuals in nonlinear production processes

Especially within the EU, I would be in favour of allowing everyone to work where they would like to. Freedom should be our default. In return for this benefit, the elite should compensate the disadvantages for the rest of society by improving the negotiation position of workers. One may think of migration restrictions for some professions, stronger unions, redistribution of wealth, programs for retraining, job guarantees for the unemployed and humane treatment of unemployed people.

A new European Union

There are many benefits of collaboration. The people of Europe need to collaborate to have the power to stand up against ever larger economic powers. There is no reason why this collaboration needs to be so intensive that the EU would become a nation itself. People's interests and customs differ and power is best exercised close to the people. We should only collaborate on large scales where this has a clear benefit.

The Euro makes inequality worse and it creates a lot of negative political energy in the EU that avoids other positive changes. Let's get rid of it. Now that the worst financial crisis is over, this is a good time to start a slow transition.

If we change the refugee convention to alternatively help refugees in the region where they come from, we can help them better than now, less will die on their way to Europe and another problem that creates bad blood in Europe would be gone.

Because refugees and migration are often seen as one problem, a reduction in the number of refugees may also reduce problems people have with migration. Still we should not be blind to the large difference in interests between the elites and the rest of society when it comes to migration. A compromise between the groups may be improving the negotiation position of workers.

Overarching above it all: You are not more pro Europe the more you would like the EU to replace the old nations. When Juncker sees the Brexit as a great opportunity to build a European nation and force the fast introduction of the Euro in every country, he is pro Europe. When I reject that uncreative vision of Europe and see the EU as a way for the people of Europe to collaborate, I am also pro Europe. Just like people argue nationally what the role of government is, we should have an open discussion in the EU about where collaboration is fruitful and possible given our differences.

For me, the most valuable innovation of the EU is actually that it is a twitter (an entity between a trade deal and a nation state). That is the reason why nations all over the world are building similar regional collaborations. They would not if the aim would the end of their nations and only building a larger more anonymous nation. Europe should be proud of its queer identity.

Related reading

Brexit is great news for the rest of the EU. Britain has not yet come to terms with its own irrelevance, and would only have got in the way of plans to create a more democratic pooling of sovereignty.

* Top photo: EU Grunge Flag, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Photo Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Map of Regional Organizations: CC BY-SA 3.0.


  1. Hi Victor.

    I notice you make no predictions. Very wise.

    Care to expand on

    "For me, the most valuable innovation of the EU is actually that it is a twitter"

    I'm not quite sure what you mean.

    I fear your optimism on peace may be overblown. We have only recently gained peace after a civil war in Northern Ireland, and EU membership helped a lot in that. Remember also that Russia is right now fighting a war on our border, has significant minorities in the Baltic states and an enclave in Kaliningrad.

    A small war might quite suit Putin whilst the EU is Brexit fixated.

  2. The post already got much too long, thus I wanted to refrain from commenting too much on Brexit and its aftermath.

    With twitter I mean that the EU is in between being just a one-time treaty between several countries and being a federal state. A close collaboration and a promise to keep the collaboration going.

    Maybe I also like it because I worked on clouds. They have variability on all spatial and temporal scales. From minute mm-scales to 1000s of km you see bumps and clusters. Thus collaborating on many different scales, from families to cities and tribes to regions, countries, regional organisation and the UN makes sense. At each of these levels you have to find the right way to collaborate.

  3. I do acknowledge that peace is a reason to be in favour of the EU. With the EU it will definitely be more peaceful. But without the EU we would not immediately get the next world war. That is what people suggest when they remind people of WWII to claim we need the EU.

    Militarily System Putin could easily occupy all of the Ukraine. They choose not to do so.

  4. Hi Victor,

    I don't really agree with your overall analysis because I am much more of a believer in free markets than you are. But it's clear from our exchange on ATTP's blog that we do agree on one thing: that the Euro is a disaster. At the moment it benefits Germany greatly in economic terms by giving it an artificially low exchange rate that is dragged down by the relative economic failure of the weaker states within the Euro. Conversely, they have an artificially high exchange rate and their economies continue to suffer because they can do nothing about their exchange rate. The response of Germany and the EU authorities so far has been to impose the austerity measures we all know about. They appear to want the Greeks, Italians, Spaniish etc to become more German in their approach and working culture but, realistically, that simply isn't going to happen.

    It seems to me that in the medium to long term this situation has to be unsustainable; indeed, I am surprised that the nations of Southern Europe have tolerated the hardships they have suffered for as long as they have. The danger I see is that continuing on the present path will encourage the right wing populist demagoguery you mention and that neither you nor I want to see. In other words it is possible that the current course will end up fomenting the nationalist populism that the EU was originally intended to suppress.

    What is to be done? Unfortunately there is at present no consensus within the EU on this. Some want to press on towards ever closer union, in other words more EU, while others take a view closer to your own. As you can tell I am with you on this; some way out of the straight jacket of the Euro must be found. As there is little sign at present that the EU powers that be are thinking on these lines I am very concerned about the future of the EU, its member states and, most importantly, their peoples.

  5. Kestrel27, this post was also aimed at my own tribe. We cannot even agree on science/reality, thus I have little hope to find agreement on ideology.

    We can still collaborate on specific projects, such as getting rid of the Euro. I have no idea how the public opinion on that is in the EU. Most of the left-wing people I know at least wish we had never started with the Euro. My impression was that conservatives seem to like it more because "it is good for business". If there is a majority in the EU, we could start an EU referendum to demand a slow transition out of the Euro, the reverse of how we eased into it with the European Monetary System.

    I like markets a lot. But they are a means to efficiently obtain aims. The aims should be set by the population. And they should actually be free, which often needs government influence. The corporations do not like free markets, you can make more money if you rig the market.

    Didn't Greece have a referendum on the Euro and wanted to keep it because they trust the EU more with their money than their own corrupt governments? But even if it is just the governments, I agree that we will not be able from the outside to change their culture/way of working. The peoples in Southern Europe will have to do that and that will be a long fight against the establishment.

    The Euro benefits Germany at the moment on the short term, but it also overheats the economy and, for example, leads to very expensive housing. It would be better for Germany if the interests were lower.

    (An interesting connection between Brexit and the climate debate is that the low interest rates make zero-carbon energy sources more attractive. Most need high investments up front and then make money almost for free. Thus the interest rate for the initial investment is a large part of the price.)


Comments are welcome, but comments without arguments may be deleted. Please try to remain on topic. (See also moderation page.)

I read every comment before publishing it. Spam comments are useless.

This comment box can be stretched for more space.