Just days before the European Commission announced plans to fine member states that refuse to take in refugees, Francois Crepeau, the UN special rapporteur on human rights for migrants, was visiting some of Europe’s most sceptical capitals in an attempt to convince leaders to do more. During an interview in Prague, he did not mince his words.
“I have more in common with a moderate conservative Muslim family than I do with a skinhead,” Crepeau said, pointing to the often poisonous tone that the migration debate has taken on in the region.
With Bratislava next on his itinerary, Crepeau argued that domestic politics, not the EU, are to blame for Europe’s failure to cope with the influx of migrants. On paper, the European Commission has a mandate to deal with this issue, but in practice the European Council, what amounts to a roundtable of premiers from the 28 EU members, makes all the decisions. “At any moment in the Council you have a quarter of the members who will have an election in the next 12 months, and they cannot take the chance of doing anything that they think might be off-putting for their electorate,” he told bne IntelliNews.
On May 4, the European Commission attempted to force the hands of domestic leaders by announcing plans to fine member states €250,000 for every refugee that they refuse to accept. Under the plan, Hungary, which has declined to take any refugees but was allocated 1,294 people under last year’s quota scheme, would be liable for €323mn. No doubt the move will prompt angry accusations about a power grab by Brussels, but Crepeau, a law professor, insists that the European Commission is empowered to deal with issues like this via the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon.
Following meetings in Prague and a talk at the Institute for International Relations, Crepeau’s next stop was Bratislava. The stops in Central Europe came as part of efforts to convince sceptical leaders (and publics) that they need to do more. He does not buy the argument that the Central European region — amid populist rhetoric and political interference with key institutions in Poland and Hungary — or the world might be fed up with the liberal worldview. “Liberalism is the result of a choice made immediately after the Second World War to make human rights a central tool of legitimization of public policies,” he said, pointing to a “triptych of modern democracy”.
“Electoral legitimization, the rule of law and human rights: we have adopted this as a framework and over the past 75 years we have developed that framework for women, for persons with disabilities and so on,” he continued. “Certainly, my grandparents after the war were not in favour of divorce, or gay marriage or whatever — but it was a learning curve and we developed the human rights doctrine by thinking progressively about new categories of people, including children.”
Crepeau’s case no doubt faces pushback in Central European capitals, but his visit is a necessary one, argues Benjamin Tallis, a migration expert at Prague’s Institute of International Relations, which played host to Crepeau. “The discourse here is dominated by refugees as a threat,” Tallis says. “You see a discourse of fear everywhere, but it is also usually balanced by other discourses.”
In short, a lack of experience with immigration means potential migrants are less likely to draw sympathy or understanding. Crepeau repeatedly referred to an educational, or learning, curve that is rooted in personal experience. “We have discovered in our families that actually Uncle Alfred, who has never married, is gay,” Crepeau said. “We have personalised many of these issues. Our mother never really got the chance to study, but thank god my sister could study. So we have learned over the years, but migrants were never part of the arrangement because they were never part of the debate.”
Crepeau lectures at Montreal’s prestigious McGill University and he has long served in a number of Canadian human rights groups, as well as working on UN observer missions in Honduras, Palestine and elsewhere. He punctuated his points with examples from his own life, noting, for example, that well into the 1960s his Catholic mother covered her head with a scarf when attending mass.
After Central Europe, Crepeau was off to Brussels, then to Africa. His larger argument points to a hole in electoral politics, whereby migrants lack political capital, which means that even well-meaning politicians have little incentive to voice support for them in human rights terms. “Electoral democracies have been excellent as tools for mainstreaming policies regarding marginalised communities, historically, like women, like gays and lesbians, people with disabilities,” Crepeau said. “This was because they were constituencies. There is no interest in integrating migrants, because they don’t vote.”
He contends that Europe’s failure to cope with the migration issue, comes down to the personal political ambitions of many leaders. “Angela Merkel made a very strong choice in the fall of 2015, hoping to be followed by some other politicians in Europe and was not followed,” Crepeau said. “These were courageous decisions that showed the way to a responsible attitude toward migration generally, but unfortunately mainstream politicians in Europe fear too much for their position in the next election to follow suit.”