How does Europe unload the risk?

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

The migration crisis roiling American and European political scene is partly a risk crisis.  As Mark Salter and Can Mutlu of the Center for European Policy Studies note the visa and asylum policies of most countries, including the EU Schengen area, are based around the risk/return calculation of allowing travel from a particular country.  The “return” component is the assumed benefit conferred by allowing the movement of capital, goods, services and persons.  The “risk” part consist of the degree of liability or danger they may present to the receiving country.  As long as the return outweighs the expected risk the visitor is admitted.


This risk-assessment process takes place on two levels: first, national-level risks of waiving visas are measured by economic, political and social indicators such as the GDP, unemployment levels, political system, ethnic violence etc. The second level focuses on the individual travellers by separating those about whom nothing is known, or nothing good is known, and facilitating the quick and easy movement of those travellers about whom many good things are known. Visa  … programmes require continuous assessment of these two levels.

Most authorities lack individual-level information and rely on national-level ratings to decide visa policy.  All EU citizens used to be able to travel to Canada visa-free until “the increase in numbers of asylum seekers claiming to be of Roma origin from the Czech Republic travelling to Canada [made] the Canadian government unilaterally re-impose … visas on Czech citizens [in 2009].”  When the Canadians detected a change in national-level ratings they changed border policy.

Before the refugee crisis the European the Schengen area had an implicit internal border policy based on the risk presented by the basket of nationalities of its member nations.  At the second level the EU had individual traveler information no one else had. “What is different about the Schengen zone … is  … the ‘behind-the-scenes’ … Schengen Information System (SIS)” .

The Schengen Information System (SIS) is a highly efficient large-scale information system that supports external border control and law enforcement cooperation in the Schengen States. The SIS enables competent authorities, such as police and border guards, to enter and consult alerts on certain categories of wanted or missing persons and objects. An SIS alert not only contains information about a particular person or object but also clear instructions on what to do when the person or object has been found. Specialised national SIRENE Bureaux serve as single points of contact for any supplementary information exchange and coordination of activities related to SIS alerts.


The EU’s  virtual internal borders were based on biometrics, data fusion and facial recognition technology to control the movement of people.  This was potentially intrusive but the public was assured that “all of this will be carried out with the strictest respect for the human dignity and integrity of the person”.

Merkel probably felt she could deal with the risk/return challenge of the migrant crisis from a position of strength,  safe behind the ramparts of a mighty bureaucracy. But the apparent safety proved a mirage.  The massive surge in refugees effectively added another EU member population pool to the existing members: the republic of migrants.  Not only did this new republic, had it been a nation, fail to meet the national risk level requirements but the lack of a common European asylum system means that its individual member under EU law could not be prevented from asylum shopping once they had been admitted.

Asylum shopping is the practice … of applying … in several states or … after transiting other states … To avoid abuses, European law…  requires that asylum seekers register … in the first country they arrive in … however … fingerprinting and registration is vehemently resisted in … as they often wish to apply for asylum in Germany and Sweden where benefits are more generous.

Frontline countries on the border could simply accept migrants knowing they would swiftly away to places like Germany. Predictably this could not go on forever. “Ms. Merkel, whose government is under threat from her putative conservative allies in Bavaria, had pushed for the informal meeting to try to forestall her own interior minister and rival from ordering that all migrants registered elsewhere be turned away from Germany. That would mean a hard border with Austria and could represent a fatal blow to the idea of ‘border-free travel’ within most of the bloc.”


The system began to tear itself apart through misaligned incentives.  The apparent cost of granting asylum was artificially low to border countries because they could offload the risk to their final destination.  The true cost proved much higher. The magnitude of risk can be glimpsed from the fact that about 55% of migrants in all categories (humanitarian, subsidiary, refugee) are rejected by the EU 28.

The spread of rejection percentages which proved especially divisive.  Although with time and patience the migrants could have gradually been absorbed, the flood came too fast for the system to digest.  Countries like the Czech Republic  with over 80% rejection rates could not align with Brussels. Nor once imported could risk be re-exported.  Merkel, probably realizing Bavarian attempts to stop migrants at their border would simply encourage other countries like Austria to do the same tried to rebundle the refugee packages with money in an effort to sell them.  But she could find no takers.  Merkel’s final gambit to save the Schengen area consists of capping the entry of unvetted migrants by detaining them in border camps.

“The deal still needs the approval of the center-left Social Democrats, the third party in Germany’s governing coalition along with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Bavarian partners, the Christian Social Democrats. The Social Democrats have opposed such plans in the past, criticizing the arrangements as ‘mass internment camps,’ a phrase with obvious historical overtones for Germans.”

The Merkel return-to-sender plan also involves shifting the unwanted immigrants into some kind of bad bank, probably Italy. “Anyone found to have asylum applications pending in another European Union country would be sent back there,” reports the New York Times.  This time however the Italians may refuse to warehouse the political risk:


Traditionally, many migrants have entered Europe through Italy, which shares a border with Austria, and registered there. But a new, populist Italian government is now turning away migrants without registering them; it might also refuse to accept migrants previously registered in Italy but now in another country.

Even if Italy can be convinced to take one for the team Merkel’s efforts will do nothing to reduce the total exposure of Europe to its failing neighbors.  Moving migrants to Africa or elsewhere merely shifts the the locus of the problem, it does not fix it. Offshore sites can be destabilized in their turn until they too are at risk. In the end there’s no escape from planet earth.

Far from being in control Merkel is on the verge of losing it.  The EU will have to take a political haircut but it’s not clear where.

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