"The EU's place in the world is a good entry point for deliberations"

Giulia Scalettaris is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Lille, where she co-directs the Master in Humanitarian Action. Since her doctorate in anthropology from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris) with a thesis on the intervention of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in the Afghan crisis, she continues to work on international asylum policies from the Afghan case. In the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe, and the Citizens’ Panels, Giulia comes back on the panel “The EU in the world / migrations” and offers us keys to bring the highly sensitive issue of immigration to the table of citizens.

Missions Publiques: Do you think that the current migration crises should be discussed with European citizens during the panel entitled “The EU in the World / Migration”?
Giulia Scalettaris: First of all, I think that we should pay attention to the vocabulary used in this panel because it deals with a highly controversial and sensitive subject. The expression “migration crisis”, for example, should be avoided in my opinion because it conveys a sense of fear but also, and above all, because its use is too often inappropriate, even though it is very popular in the media and in the mouths of decision makers.

To speak of a “migration crisis” implies first of all that Europe is facing a problematic increase in incoming migration flows. However, in 2015, despite the increase in the number of asylum seekers, they represent only 0.2% of the European population. In other words, at the height of what some call the “migration crisis” there was one asylum seeker for every 500 Europeans. By way of comparison, a country like Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, received 1.5 million refugees, i.e. 1 refugee for every 3 inhabitants. It is therefore inappropriate to speak of a migration crisis when referring to the European situation. Instead of “migration crisis” we should rather talk about “crisis of European asylum policies”. In 2015, these policies proved their inadequacy, when what prevailed was the closing of borders and a policy of “passing the buck” among the Member States. The use of the expression “migration crisis”, on the other hand, is rather ethnocentric, as it emphasizes the consequences of migration on European societies, and in fact invisibilizes the real crises that lead individuals to migrate. Finally, talking about a “migration crisis” constructs migration as something abnormal, whereas mobility has characterized human societies since man first appeared on Earth.

What would be the best way to discuss these issues with citizens?
I think that the EU’s place in the world is a good entry point for the European Panel’s deliberations. A question like: “Can we all agree that a society that remains closed in on itself is a weak society that will not be able to flourish? On the contrary, can we all agree that a strong society is not afraid of the other and is not afraid to be open and to receive populations that have different values and ideas from ours?”

For me, Europe today is in a weak position because its models and the values it proposes to the rest of the world show all their limits. What endangers Europe is not the few foreigners who come, but our inability to renew ourselves and to put ourselves under discussion! Our economic model based on growth, for example, presented as desirable, as synonymous with modernity, is proving to be less and less viable and is leading us towards an environmental crisis. Our migration policies towards the citizens of the South, based on containment, openly contrast with the image of the cradle of human rights that Europe wants to give of itself. Another example: our values of peace and democracy are beautiful, and the principle of presenting ourselves to the rest of the world as a “peace power” rather than a military power is attractive, but in my opinion, these can become dangerous when Europe wants to export them to the outside world, as was the case in Afghanistan.

This country, which I have studied for a long time, shows us that the export of peace and democracy does not work. 20 years of presence, huge military and financial investments did not allow to put an end to the conflict nor to convince the whole population. A civil war quickly followed the arrival of the Westerners and the inefficiency of the reconstruction projects partly explains the fact that the Taliban were able to gain legitimacy among the rural population. In my opinion, beyond the military and diplomatic mistakes, a crucial factor of weakness was the idea of being able to implement democracy in this country by believing itself to be the holder of a superior model and by making a tabula rasa of local political relations. The foreigners arrived without asking themselves how to graft what they were proposing onto what already existed in the country. The administration in place before the 1980s, for example, functioned in a different way than our states: in order to exist, it needed to root its power in sub-state actors (solidarity groups, notables, tribes, etc.). It is therefore an act of modesty that is required of us: democracy is certainly beneficial for us, but there are also other ways of organizing ourselves politically that we must first understand. At best, this export of democracy does not work, at worst it is a policy of imperialist domination.

We should therefore find a way to see with the citizens how the Old Continent could emerge as a strong pole without erecting an external power policy.

Do you think we should try to understand where this feeling of fear comes from?
I do think that we should try to use this pan-European consultative moment to understand more about the fear of the other and the internal fissures in our societies that the issues of immigration crystallize.

In my anthropology work, I was led to study the work of Saskia Sassen. She explains that in an era of globalization, we are witnessing an opening of borders for trade, tourism, information flows, etc., but that these borders are closing for migrants who try to reach Western regions. For her, these restrictive migration policies are a response to a feeling of loss of control over phenomena over which neither citizens nor decision-makers have any control – whether they are citizens impoverished because their factory has been relocated to Asia or decision-makers who find themselves grappling with climate issues. We will give ourselves the illusion of control by locking the external borders and the migrants who wish to return become the scapegoats of our fears.

Furthermore, I hope that the Conference on the Future of Europe will be an opportunity to highlight the extent to which immigration crystallizes deep and multiple tensions within our societies. These tensions divide the citizens of a single country, polarized between the “supporters” on the one hand and the anti-immigrationists on the other. They undermine relations between member states, which “pass the buck” on asylum seekers. They hinder relations between member states and the European Union, because the former do not like the European institutions to dictate their migration policy. They weaken the Union’s foreign policy, because policies of externalization of borders are not without compromise.

But in my opinion, the deepest internal tension that is developing before our eyes is the one between the states and a part of their own citizens. The crisis of the reception policies of 2015 has catalyzed, throughout Europe, movements of citizen solidarity that do not recognize themselves in the migration policies of their states and the EU. I remember the shock of the first lawsuits against European citizens who helped non-Europeans to survive in the internal border areas of the EU. This criminalization of solidarity towards asylum seekers constitutes, in my opinion, a paradoxical drift of our democratic societies. While it claims to protect the nation by locking its borders, the state ends up attacking the very citizens it claims to want to protect! The citizens arrested for “excessive solidarity” are often young. I had the opportunity to meet some of them in France and in Italy. Beyond the fear, they were amazed: they found themselves in an absurd situation in front of a court for having brought blankets or gone for a walk together with people in distress, while they were only applying the values of fraternity and solidarity of the Constitution that they had learned in public school.

Finally, in order to bring out – and ideally begin to smooth out – all of these tensions, I think one strength of this Panel is undoubtedly its international dimension. Citizens from the Balkans, for example, will be present to talk about their experiences with immigration. Some of these populations, among others, have a certain distrust of the Muslim populations of Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis who arrive and I think we can learn from their testimony. In talking with them, I understood that their apprehension probably stems from the Ottoman Empire, but also from the feeling of injustice felt towards Europe, which asks them to do “the dirty work”, i.e. to create detention centers and to welcome foreigners on their own soil. In other words, they were asked to do what we did not want to do.

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