Growing pains

ON ANY given Sunday morning, the tiny Swedish town of Soedertaelje sees the local church in a jovial air, with men, women and children jostling for a seat in the benches. The church is filled to capacity and parking spaces are all but taken up. This sleepy town is also associated with legendary tennis player Bjorn Borg who grew up here.

By Mn Hebbar

Published: Thu 29 Nov 2007, 8:12 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:31 AM

But this is not your usual church. The parishioners gathered here have less to do with tennis than with the fact that they are all Iraqi Christians attending Mass that is conducted in Arabic. They are refugees and have settled in Soedertaelje – nicknamed Little Baghdad - in large numbers, thanks to the liberal migration policies of the Swedish government. But the government may soon say ‘enough is enough’.

This migration – even from non-EU countries as in this case – came under the scanner last week as the European Commission convened in Brussels to look at the annual reports on the countries next in line for European Union membership. Evidently, the Commission’s usual practice of making the accession process largely technocratic in the hope that the political momentum would take it forward has now evolved into injecting a mix of understated criticism with faint praise wherever necessary, in the presentation of scenarios.

This year’s exercise was notable for a strategy paper on why it was important to keep the EU door open for further enlargement against the backdrop of the pressures of globalisation. It did little, though, to address the more pressing problems of the citizens who still believe that instead of bold policy reform and decisive change, the leaders had locked themselves in a room at the top of the tower and debated things no ordinary citizen could understand.

Furthermore, the Commission officials reckoned without the growing problems unleashed by migration from the new member countries even as they were busy making the case for admission of Turkey, Croatia and other Balkan wannabes in the “medium to long term”.

But the cause of expansion has not been helped by recent happenings in Europe. Among other things, an Italian woman was fatally set upon by a Romanian migrant, one among some half a million Romanian arrivals in the wake of Romania’s (and Bulgaria’s) entry to the EU in January this year.

Consequently, Italy’s government has passed a decree to permit the expulsion of EU immigrants deemed a threat to public order, prompting Commission officials to concur that a EU citizen’s freedom to travel can thus be vetoed as long as expulsions do not target whole ethnic groups or nationalities.

Enlargement has thus become a word that does not fail to send shudders down the spines of EU countries that are already long in the fold, mostly Italy, Britain and Germany, where the number of immigrants from new member states has far exceeded official estimates.

Commission officials are waking up to the fact that uncontrolled immigration can have serious consequences for national demographics, unemployment and social tensions as well as put a question mark over EU’s decision-making that is all too influenced by the lowest common denominator.

Thousands of Poles and Czechs, among others, have entered Britain since accession in 2004 while Italy is struggling to additionally cope with illegal immigrants from Africa risking their lives to make the journey by sea.

Last year saw more than 20,000 Iraqi refugees seeking asylum in EU countries, with 9,000 in Sweden alone. Sweden has beseeched other EU countries to jointly shoulder the responsibility of taking in refugees and called for an immediate EU instrument to cope with the problem.

The Swedish immigration minister,Tobias Billstroem, has bitterly complained that other EU countries are doing too little to restrain the flow, further aggravated by the inefficient functioning of the Schengen agreement (permitting free passage at border check points among signatories), stating that they wilfully let the stream of refugees pass through their territories, knowing fully well that their end destination is Sweden.

But the problem does not end here because expansion is the new mantra. EU ministers are now looking at countries standing in the queue. Turkey’s accession is problematic. British voters have often made the correct noises in making a strategic case for Turkey’s admission while 81 per cent of Austrians said “Nein” as revealed in the same poll. Yet, even in Britain, the ground has been shifting in the wake of the media’s horror stories about new migrants from Central and Eastern Europe. There are already regrets in official circles that Romania and Bulgaria came in too soon.

France has played its card publicly. President Sarkozy has not only stated that Turkey should never join the EU but also hinted that any further enlargement is by no means inevitable.

Turkey’s chances of a successful EU entry are somewhat improving as despite slowing down reforms in the past eighteen months, its new government’s record of moving towards EU’s criteria for membership has been taken note of in Brussels. Croatia too has made progress, but corruption is a major stumbling block on the path towards accession.

Sweden, however, is setting the pace on the migration issue because the lack of a uniform EU migration law will seriously impact other member states that are dragging their feet. In particular, Sweden, which will take over the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2009, will make it a top priority to translate its lessons learnt from the Iraqi experience into a workable “Help towards self-help” formula, even outside EU’s borders.

EU expansion is becoming worrisome. Its timing even more so. And its future prospects may be summed up by Commissioner Rehn’s witty answer to a pointed question. When pressed to give a time-table for negotiations with the Balkan countries, he cited the case of the Finnish composer Sibelius who, questioned by his wife on when he would return from his travels, meekly replied: “Darling, I am a composer, not a prophet”!

MN Hebbar is a Berlin-based writer

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