Europe and the United States’ most pressing opportunity for cooperation might not be TTIP after all.
In this intensely globalized and digitalized world, the fact that most wealth and prosperity has amassed on some continents but not others is impossible to conceal. It therefore should have come as no surprise when millions of individuals escaping war and economic depravity set off for their more affluent neighbors to the North. This ‘age of migration’ will undoubtedly have long-term implications for the transatlantic relationship; but as of yet, the corollary burden has been distributed unequally. As Europe grapples with waves of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, its oldest ally across the Atlantic detects mere ripples from a distant storm. Journalists may have brought headlines of the ‘refugee crisis’ to American shores, but the people themselves have largely stayed behind. Yet how can it be that these migrants, whose current plight is as much due to European as American (neo)colonial policies, are effectively only Europe’s responsibility? The deeply interdependent nature of the European-American allegiance should be cause to propel Europe’s migration crisis, and arguably global migration as a whole, to the top of the transatlantic agenda. After all, what destabilizes Europe will inevitably destabilize North America too – even with a comfortable maritime buffer. In order to address a humanitarian and societal challenge likely to span generations as much as continents, constructive, mutually-beneficial cooperation on migration and displaced persons must become an enduring component of transatlantic diplomacy.
The imbalance can be illustrated well in comparing Germany, the de facto manager of Europe’s refugee crisis, with the United States. The Bundesrepublik received 441,900 new asylum claims in 2015 compared to 172,700 in the US (UNHCR Report, pg. 3). That is approximately 0.55% versus 0.057% of the population respectively. While both Germany and the US top the list in terms of number of asylum claims worldwide, Germany out-received the US by nearly a factor of ten in 2015. It is simply a fact that the US could be more ambitious in accepting refugees; the 85,000 limit for admitted asylum seekers for the 2016 fiscal year, as stated in the Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions, pales in comparison to the over one million asylum seekers who registered in Germany in 2015. The fact that the Atlantic Ocean is not traversable in a rubber dinghy should not absolve the United States of responsibility in playing a more substantial role in this crisis – especially considering America’s vested interest in preserving the stability of its indispensible European allies.
Processing asylum claims and integrating newcomers is only half the battle, however. While many migrants and refugees will undoubtedly stay in their Western host countries, countless others yearn to return home and will indeed do so once either the war in their country ends, schools become accessible, economic outlooks brighten, or their religion, ethnicity, sexuality is no longer persecuted. Though myriad reasons have prompted Afghanis, Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis and Eritreans to leave, most wish they hadn’t been compelled to in the first place. Fluchtursachenbekämpfung, Germany’s new catch-all term for combating the root causes of migration, is a deliberate policy shift toward achieving a long-term, organic reduction in migration rates to Europe by improving prospects for potential migrants in their countries of origin. The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development allotted more than three billion USD in 2016 to combating the structural causes of migration, largely in the Middle East and Africa. Though on a smaller scale, the US is contending with its own five-fold increase in asylum-seekers from Central America over the last three years (UNHCR Report, pg. 7). As a response, the United States Agency for International Development has earmarked a notably smaller 470.3 million USD of a larger one billion budget for 2017, to address the root causes of migration from its southern neighbors. The similar approach of using development aid to more sustainably quell the rise of refugee and migration populations on both sides of the Atlantic presents a valuable opportunity for collaboration between transatlantic partners. In a June, 2016 address on the US and Germany, assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Anne C. Richards, praised entities already endeavoring to cooperate, be it traditional diplomacy between both governments or grassroots efforts from organizations like the Welcoming Community Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE), which facilitates best-practice sharing on issues of immigration and integration. While there are encouraging examples to be seen, Richards nevertheless fears that more must be done.
Changing political climates in both the US and Europe risk derailing collaborative progress to date on humanely managing migration. The election of Donald Trump to US president not only set off anxious tremors in the transatlantic community, it reinforced the populist trend of isolationism festering in nearly every European country due, in large part, to the increased arrival of MENA-region migrants and refugees. Europe, and especially Germany, know they can capitalize on the possibilities presented by this new demographic, yet to do so they must surmount the hostility and xenophobia hampering successful integration. Americans know their legacy is built on having integrated myriad cultures across history, yet shortsighted intolerance and insular condemning of foreigners prevail to this day. President-elect Trump’s victory seems to perpetuate the latter. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, is especially apprehensive about what Trump’s foreign affairs doctrine may hold. With 65 million displaced people around the world today, the issue of asylum and migration will be impossible to avoid. The question is whether and to what extent Europe and the US will engage each other on the matter.
Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Donald Trump close cooperation with the stipulation that respect for the “dignity of mankind, regardless of skin color, origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation” continues to be upheld. Will this be possible under the new administration? To compensate for where there are doubts, other entities are called upon to lead a more robust and certainly more public discourse on the subject of displaced persons. The already extensive transatlantic network of civil society groups, think thanks, NGOs, development agencies and grassroots actors should demonstrate solidarity in addressing refugee and migration issues. The transatlantic relationship must establish a sustainable, coordinated approach to what is arguably the greatest humanitarian issue of the 21st century – one that can feasibly withstand changing executive administrations. This challenge is simply too pervasive and too enduring for anything less.