The history of the European migration regime: Germany’s strategic hegemony

by Emmanuel Comte

Emmanuel Comte's The History of the European Migration Regime (Routledge, 2018) looks at how the international migration regime in Europe after the Second World War took a course different from the global migration regime and the migration regimes in other regions of the world. On the basis of relevant national and international archives, it explains how German geopolitical and geo-economic strategies during the Cold War shaped the openness of that original regime. It highlights how the regime was instrumental for Germany to create a stable international order in Western Europe after the war, conducive to German reunification, the rollback of Russian influence from Central Europe, and German economic expansion. The book embraces a large time frame, mostly between 1947 and 1992, and deals with all types of migration between and towards European countries: the movements of unskilled labourers, skilled professionals, and self-employed workers, along with the migrants’ family members, examining both their access to economic activity and their social and political rights.

This Q&A with the author accompanies the launch of the book on 10 May 2018, hosted by the Cambridge Forum on Geopolitics.

 

Why did you write the book?

I decided to become an expert on international migration because immigrants form the basis of social diversity and also tend to be among the most disadvantaged within destination countries. The number of adverse social constraints they generally face shocked me and I wanted to study the formation of open international migration regimes, in which those constraints are fewer. As I write in the introduction, ‘The primary focus of this book is … to explore the formation of the open migration regime within Europe and, in doing so, investigate an instance in which an open international migration regime was able to occur.’ In telling the story of the European migration regime since the late 1940s, I am therefore biased towards understanding the origins of the relative internal openness of this regime.

 

What main features distinguish the post-WW2 European migration regime from the global migration regime and migration regimes in other parts of the world?

Border checks, difficult access to the labour market, limited residency rights, reduced social security benefits outside the country of employment and the absence of civic rights for migrants are all characteristic features of international migration regimes in many parts of the world and at the global level. The European migration regime is distinctive for its higher degree of openness, easier access to employment, the recognition of qualifications, the export of social security benefits and certain civic rights for migrants in Europe. Another feature of the European regime is its deep closure to migration from outside Europe. Most migration opportunities are therefore limited to European populations.

 

What does your book tell us about migrants’ access to economic activity and their social and political rights?

You learn in the book about the various forms of migration between European countries, such as the flows of migrants who have only their labour, of skilled migrants, of the self-employed and of migrant families. The book explains the gradual liberalisation of access to employment and self-employment for migrants. You also learn the details of social security arrangements for migrants in Europe, which became particularly important in shaping the composition and level of migration flows.

 

In what ways has this regime been shaped by Germany’s Cold-War geopolitical strategies and preferences?

Even though promoting German economic expansion accounted for certain aspects of the regime, certain features were also decisive in helping Germany achieve its geopolitical goals. During the Cold War, German strategic thinking was concerned with recovering East Germany, ending Soviet occupation and rolling back Russian influence from Central Europe. First, an open migration regime in Western Europe could guarantee that the economies of other states would remain open to German migrants at a decisive turning point in the Cold War, during which the emigration of Germans from East Germany and other Central European countries would dramatically increase. Being in position to remain open to these flows was a strategy to precipitate the collapse of the Soviet order in East Germany and the rest of Central Europe.

Second, besides the economic support of its Western partners in absorbing migrants from the East, it also mattered to the West German government to create long-lasting unity and cohesion among Western European countries. The open migration regime was the most important aspect of the benevolent international order that Germany wanted to create in Western Europe. It was about granting permanent rights to the citizens of other European countries and allowing them to benefit from German means of production. Only such a benevolent order could guarantee a deep cohesion of the West and therefore contribute to undermining the Soviet order in the East. Later, this benevolent order would serve as a magnet promoting the transition away from Communism and Russian influence in Central Europe.

Third, during the turbulent context of the end of the Cold War, I show in the book that European citizenship – which then became the basic status of European migrants – was closely linked to the development of a Common Foreign and Security Policy. European citizenship granted benefits, mostly in Germany and France, for the citizens of Germany’s partners and was supposed to integrate them in a European mind-set and lead them to support common foreign policies in relation to the rollback of Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

 

What has been the regional and global impact of this regime’s unparalleled degree of both intra-regional openness and closure to migrants from outside Europe?

The regional impact was to foster migration flows within Europe and, in doing so, favour a process of convergence of gross domestic products (GDPs) per capita. As late as 1954, 57 percent of Italian emigrants still moved to non-European destinations. With more open migration arrangements in Europe, by the mid-1960s nearly 80 percent of Italian emigrants moved to continental countries of north-west Europe. The same happened with Greece. Italian GDP per capita was still 15 percent lower than the average in Western Europe in 1960: twenty years later they were equal. With the enlargements of the European Union in Central Europe in 2004 and 2007, the populations of EU citizens living in a country other than their own more than doubled, from 5.9 million in 1999 to 13.6 million in 2012. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of Romanians residing in Western Europe multiplied tenfold and reached 2.4 million. The global impact of this regime was a higher degree of restrictions for global migratory flows towards Europe. And yet, migratory issues largely affect the relations between Europe and the countries of North Africa, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. The migration regime with Europe is crucial for the economic development and political stability of those regions.

 

Where do you see this regime heading in the future, and how do you see it influencing migration regimes in different parts of the world?

As far as the internal dimension of the regime is concerned, Brexit will affect its stability, unless the UK remains part of it ­­– albeit from outside the EU. The British government could consider this option because, gradually from the beginning of the current decade, Germany has regained its traditional position of absorbing migration flows in Europe, which it had lost in the first decade of this century. This contributes to stabilising the regime and alleviating European migration pressure in Britain. It is likely that Germany’s absorption capacity will be sufficient to contain the effects of further enlargements of the EU in the Western Balkans. Yet, a number of these migrants tend to move directly to Italy, whose absorption capacities are lower and can be a source of political tensions.

As far as the external dimension of the regime is concerned, the question of the absorption of migration flows from outside Europe is a major source of uncertainty, which may even undermine the migration regime within Europe. There have been attempts to duplicate the European migration regime in South America and Africa, sometimes under European encouragement or injunction. I am not optimistic for such arrangements in Africa. By explaining how the relatively open migration regime in Europe came into existence, the book also offers a general perspective on the conditions and factors for the formation of such regimes. I do not think that those conditions and factors are in place in Africa, or even in most African sub-systems.


About the Author

Emmanuel Comte

Emmanuel Comte is currently Research Fellow in Contemporary History at the Vienna School of International Studies and was previously Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of California, Berkeley.