Can Europe Make It?

Is the 'migrant crisis' simply a question of humanitarian assistance?

The European left is crushed between right-wing movements declaring the moral priority of fellow nationals, and huge flows of migrants asking for dignity. How should social democrats respond?

Fausto Corvino
1 October 2015


Migrants cross the border between Macedonia and Greece. Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA. Some rights reserved.Images of countries pinballing migrants at borders and fighting over quotas will scar the European collective imaginary. In the first half of 2015, 137,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean sea. Almost 68,000 of them reached Greece, while 67,500 arrived in Italy. Meanwhile, between January and April alone, almost 1,800 went missing or drowned. 

What should social democratic parties do? All of a sudden, their basic ideas of equality and social justice are exposed to a question of 'scope'. Should migrants be part of their political programme as fellow citizens are? To put it in Rawlsian terms, should migrants fleeing from Africa and the Middle East be granted a social minimum as those taking part in the ‘basic structure of society’? Right-wing populist movements do have a clear answer to this question: no. They propose a kind of 'national priority principle' that might be summed up in these terms: as long as national economic resources are limited, an absolute priority should be given to mitigating the tragedies of compatriots.

We might think this not incompatible with the principle of humanitarian assistance. Even a person committed to granting priority to the economic needs of fellow nationals has an overarching moral duty to intervene in cases of humanitarian emergencies. So, for example, even if you believe that distributive justice is a national affair, you cannot refuse to rescue foreign citizens arriving on your shores, just because the cost of the fuel for the rescuing vessel will divert money from national unemployment funds.

But what happens after the most urgent aid has been provided? Those fleeing war and persecution will be granted political asylum for reasons that go beyond social justice. What should we do with economic migrants? Despite not being eligible for asylum, they risk their lives to escape extreme poverty and destitution.


A man and his child are stuck, Aug 21 2015. AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic. Some rights reserved.European social democrats are now, for the first time, obliged to deal openly with this issue of political scope. As long as autocratic regimes in northern Africa worked as a barrier against migration, the consequences of the statist view were mainly an omission of international redistribution of wealth towards people living in other countries – that was only visible in official development assistance (ODA) statistics. In 2014, only four EU member states met the 0.7 percent ODA/GNI target: Luxembourg (1.07 per cent), Denmark (0.85 per cent), the United Kingdom (0.71 per cent) and Sweden (1.10 per cent). While EU collective ODA amounted to just 0.42 percent of EU GNI.

The data on world poverty and inequality is well known. In 2014, 1.2 billion people were living on less than $1.25 per day, while 1.5 billion people were in multi-dimensional poverty. About 80 percent of the world population lacked social protection, and 842 million people suffered from chronic hunger. In developing countries, 68 children in 100 would have not received primary education, and 30 would have suffered from delayed growth.

Before the start of the ‘migrants crisis’, these numbers accounted for simple omissions in providing economic help to anonymous people living far away, in the worry that this money would have been diverted from its purpose in the long transfer process, or, even worse, with the fear that it could have damaged the economies of those in need. The Arab Spring and the subsequent chaos in northern Africa and the Middle East have given a different weight to these numbers, because many overseas citizens in desperate need of economic resources are now on European soil. Those that are supposed to be excluded from social justice concerns from the statist viewpoint are not simply anonymous people living far away any more. They are at our doorstep.

Matteo Salvini animatedly speaking from a podium.

Matteo Salvini speaking at a Lega Nord rally. Andrea Spinelli/Demotix. All rights reserved.Leaving aside the legal issue of asylum, the European left is being crushed between two growing forces: on the one hand, right-wing political movements declaring the moral priority of fellow nationals in a moment of economic recession, and on the other hand, huge flows of migrants reaching the Union and asking for a future with dignity. As long as social democrats remain stuck in their statist position, they will fall short of arguments and any political incisiveness. However, as soon as they dare to expand the scope of their political ideas beyond national borders, they will leave themselves open to attacks from populist right movements that will gain votes and consensus at their expense.

If someone claims for a social minimum to be guaranteed to economic migrants, the populist right responds that in European countries the taxpayers who live close to or below the poverty line should be given priority in the allocation of any economic surplus. In 2013, there were almost 123 million people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the European Union (28.4 percent of the population in Italy, 18.1 percent in France, 27.5 percent in Portugal, 27.3 percent in Spain and 35.7 percent in Greece). Generally, this counter-argument proves to be electorally efficient. Look, for example, at the success obtained during the last Danish elections by the Danish People Party (DPP), which finished second with 21 percent of the votes. DPP leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl had called for reducing the number of migrants while advocating for an increase in welfare spending on elderly and needy fellow nationals.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing Lega Nord party, is in favour of welcoming asylum-seekers, but urges sending economic migrants back home immediately on the grounds that national unemployment and poverty are on the rise and his country simply cannot afford to help foreigners. Over a few months, Salvini has managed to transform a moribund party into the leading formation in a centre-right coalition.

In France, the tough attitude of the socialist ruling party in the migrant crisis of the past months has been deeply influenced by the fear that Marine Le Pen’s Front National would have been favoured in electoral terms, had the government wholeheartedly accepted migrants trying to cross the French border at Ventimiglia, Italy.


Migrants get stuck at the Macedonia/Greece border on 2/9/15. Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters. Some rights reserved.The 'national priority' objection is usually successful because economic migrants are mostly depicted in public debates as belonging to alien communities that are completely different from ours. Within this narrative framework, all economic help provided to overseas citizens fleeing destitution can be interpreted as a supererogatory act – something that is surely honourable to do but not obligatory to perform. Such a supererogatory act can be easily subordinated to redistributive duties towards compatriots. The economic crisis is continuing to spread poverty among Europeans. This fact expands the scope of the national priority objection, exposing whoever tries to express public concern for the welfare of economic migrants to criticism from populist right movements.

German philosopher Thomas Pogge has defined this view as ‘explanatory nationalism’. Severe poverty is simply the product of local factors for which people living in industrialized countries are not responsible. Therefore, if I give aid to a poor person who got to Europe from Sub-Saharan Africa, it amounts to humanitarian assistance.

If social democrats continue accepting this description of poverty, they will remain vulnerable to the priority objection and will not have anything to say about economic migrants. There are two questions the European left should ask itself before downgrading the issue of economic migrants to a question of humanitarian aid.

The first question is whether the level of economic globalization we have reached can still permit us to hold that borders of social cooperation overlap political frontiers (see Charles Beitz). If the answer is no, then we cannot continue to view economic migrants as aliens entering a completely closed and independent community (ours). Even if this alone is insufficient to maintain that they should be guaranteed the same social rights defended by social democrats for fellow nationals, because we do not share with economic migrants the same institutional structure, it might allow social democrats to maintain that guaranteeing an economic minimum to economic migrants is not simply a matter of humanitarian assistance but rather an issue of fairer redistribution.

The second question is whether extreme poverty can be fully explained as a result of local factors. According to Pogge, we have a negative duty not to uphold a global order that causes poverty and destitution. For instance, he is of the opinion that industrialized countries have abused their power in global institutions, such as the WTO, to force developing countries to open up their markets while keeping their own national markets closed in the sectors where poorer countries would have been more competitive, such as manufacturing and agriculture. If European countries really do share a fraction of causal responsibility for the desperation economic migrants are fleeing from, then allocating them some economic resources would not be simple assistance any more, but compensation.

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