The Future of Europe and its Borders: Event Report
Dublin’s newly-opened Ruin bar on Tara Street provided drinks, chips, and refuge from the rain on the evening of our event, ‘The Future of Europe and its Borders’. Our group included students, members of the public, the Torc team, as well as guests from London’s Agora think tank. The event opened with four presentations from a panel of Torc and Agora speakers. The Q&A session that followed doubled as an experiment in the format of panel discussion (more on this below!) The ensuing discussion continued informally over pints into the night.
Across diverse topics — Brexit, populism, security and defence, and migration law — the unifying theme was the future of our continent as it undergoes abrupt splits in attitude towards migration and border control. Continue reading for five highlights we’re looking back on today.
If you missed the event, you can listen to a recording of the presentations here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K49JNkPXcc4&t=38s
Brexit, Northern Ireland, and ‘Escher’s Border’
Trying to draw the legal border between the UK and EU under the conditions of Brexit is like trying to find the horizon in an M.C. Escher picture. So argued John, speaker on Brexit and vice-president of Torc’s sister think tank in London, Agora. John’s presentation focused on Brexit’s stagnation and the problem of the Northern Irish border.
He broke down Brexit into three key promises. May’s Government have vowed to leave the customs union, to retain the ‘political and economic sovereignty of the UK (i.e. no border in the Irish Sea), all the while maintaining a frictionless border in Ireland.
The incompatibility of these three commitments is cause of the unending stalemate of the Brexit negotiations. Taken together, the three promises paint a picture that John likened to one of Escher’s famous staircase prints: take any two parts of the image and you seem to be getting somewhere – look at the whole and you see the unending loop.
Thus, to speculate about the end of the Brexit stalemate is to ask which one of the three promises the Brexiteers could break first. On the night, John predicted the UK’s position on the customs union would be first to loosen. Indeed, he predicted the unknotting would begin with dissent in the House of Lords – a prophecy the MPs were quick to prove.
Populists spell trouble for the ‘unity’ of the Union
For her presentation, Torc chairperson Grace explored the questions raised by the recent explosion of populist movements for the future of Europe. To begin, after establishing Cas Mudde’s nuanced definition of radical right populism as the basis of her analysis, she explored how populists operate – arguing that fantastic story-telling skills are key to the huge support the movements amass.
Looking at the future of Europe, the main issue presented by populism is the widening gap between governments under differing levels of populist influence. In countries like Germany and France, populist parties are tending to be (at most) the third biggest influence. While this represents enough force to foster internal division, shift debate towards the right and hamper integration, in these states populist ideals do not generally influence policy directly.
On the other hand, in countries like Poland and Hungary, populist movements have taken a majority share in power. There, we see EU values like the rule of law, freedom of the press, and freedom of movement under direct attack by governments.
These differences raise a critical question about the future identity of the EU. Is the Union a community of values or merely a trading bloc? When far-right populists take power, the Union is left with members who are happy to participate in its economic benefits while rejecting its broader vision. The question is posed: how much internal difference can a ‘union’ tolerate while continuing to function as such?
The extraverted future of European security
The EU’s borders are more secure today than in perception. So argued Dan, who leads the Security & Defence program at Agora. Even given the anxiety at the borders with Russia, from a historical perspective the current threat of military aggression is quite low. So, talking about European security today means focusing on cultural/ideational threats within the EU’s territories and how they relate to security beyond its borders.
The major example of this is the ongoing refugee crisis. As we have seen over the last two years, conflict abroad – as far as North Africa – has created a massive flow of refugees into EU Member States. Rather than posing a physical security threat (no matter what certain far-right voices would claim), the threat presented by the refugee crises is an ideational one that stems from the social reaction to the immigrant flow. Here, as Grace discussed, we see the values and identity of the EU being called into question as member states diverge in their responses to the crisis.
For this reason and more, Dan sees the exportation of security as the most important issue in the future of Europe. He highlighted the Common Security and Defence Policy, or CDSP, as the milestone on the Union’s path in this direction to-date. The CDSP is the EU’s intergovernmental agreement for the support of humanitarian missions far beyond its borders. Dan pressed the need for the EU to continue in this direction, and to recognise and respect the dependence of its internal security on stable states and societies in the wider world.
The surprising importance of Dublin to the Mediterranean refugee crisis
To conclude the evening’s presentations, Torc member and law student Alan gave us a run-through of the EU migration laws pertinent to the discussion of borders and the future of the EU. After briefly exploring the two key articles that have the greatest impact on intra-EU migration – the Schengen agreement, and the Citizens Right Directive – Alan identified the so-called “Dublin regulation” as the legal item bearing the most heavily on discussions of European immigration today.
The Dublin regulation – named for the Dublin Convention signed here in 1990 – is behind the most controversial legal imperative for EU member states today: namely, that the country first reached by an asylum seeker is responsible for dealing with that asylum application. The problems raised by this since 2016 for countries like Italy and Greece are so visible in the media today that they require little extrapolation. However, some of the nuance of the regulation is not so clear to the observer. As such, Alan explored the law’s more subtle provisions for movement of refugees’ claims, as well as the so-called sovereignty clause – which allows member-states to voluntarily relieve their neighbours of asylum-requests.
He concluded by assessing the place of the Dublin Regulation in Europe today and the alternatives that have been presented in response to the challenges of refugee crisis. While most states unambiguously agree that the current law is no longer appropriate, they display massive ambivalence about the next step. While ideas circulate about per-capita payments for every rejected refugee, as well as strict quotas for sharing responsibility, the EU have put it up to the Bulgarian government to formally propose a compromise. The future of the Union depends on what – if anything – it can agree upon to replace “Dublin”.
The grassroots model is an exciting new type of political platform
After the presentations, we trialled a new form of technology-facilitated Q&A: the Crowdoscope model. Crowdoscope is an online service that enables audiences to field questions under various categories and then vote for the questions they want to hear answered. When we first heard about it, we were struck by the way it evoked innovation and democracy in one breath: we had to give it a shot.
So, attendees entered our Crowdoscope URL into their phones, and their questions fed through in real-time to the laptop of our MC, Fiona. There she could see the most popular question in the four themes of our evening. She put these to their respective presenters for a dynamic Q&A session that rarely strayed from the general interest of the room.
This done, the evening settled into its final stage, and a staple of the grassroots think tank model – politics and pints. This is a chance for interested members of the public to bounce their ideas in a friendly setting, and for experts to meet and share their work with like-minded people. It’s integral to a model that encourages the focused streams of political thinking to break their banks and intermingle.