Dec 16 2017

Governing Migration: The Responsibility of European Society and the Limits of Morality

By Federico Nicolaci

Contemporary mass migration patterns and dynamics pose an entirely new set of questions that European leadership should urgently articulate and answer. It is not easy: the issue is highly contentious and countries have different views as to the measures and methods to address it. However, framing the whole question in moralistic terms—as often happens in political discourse—is not only reductive and arbitrary: it is playing a dangerous game, with potentially disastrous political results.

1. The spectacularisation of tragedy and the temptation of emotional response

Undoubtedly a profound influence in the political response to the European refugee crisis has been exerted by the pivotal role of media in representing the drama of children, men and women tragically drowned in the Mediterranean while seeking to reach Europe’s shores. The spectacularisation of sorrow, along with the spectacularisation of violence, is indeed an inherent feature of today’s “society of spectacle” dominated by mass media and shaped by the possibility of instant sharing of images and videos.

Think of the shocking and highly dramatic image of the lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian child, washed up along the Greek shore: in the second half of 2015, the sensationalist coverage of that event galvanised the public and hit Europe’s conscious as no piece of writing had been previously able to do. According to research conducted by the Visual Social Media Lab of Sheffield University, that photograph was seen by 20 million people in less than 12 hours after it was first published, creating a powerful frame trough which subsequent coverage on the migration crisis has been positioned, dramatically shifting governments’ policies, as well as public attitudes, towards the issue.

It is, however, difficult to overlook the dangers of emotional responses when it comes to determining governments’ policies, particularly if we take into account the nature and the magnitude of today’s patterns of migration. The last available data suggest that in 2015 a total of 2.7 million people immigrated to the European Union from a variety of foreign (id est, non-member) countries. In 2016, over 1,236,300 new asylum applications have been lodged throughout the EU. While the flow of migrants to Europe in 2015 represented the biggest influx from outside the Continent in Modern history, many experts warn that the mass movement, in the absence of any form of dissuasion, may continue and even increase—possibly for years to come.

Evidently, the governance of mass migration cannot be a policy forged by emotions: it touches upon a number of political and social issues too delicate and complex to be solely considered from the angle of compassion or generosity. The Weberian distinction between the Ethic of Moral Conviction and the Ethic of Responsibility is of particular relevance here.

2. The politics of good intentions and the nature of political responsibility[1] 

Yet, conventional political wisdom suggests that Europe has a “moral obligation” to welcome migrants in the name of a solidaristic categorical imperative (“humanitarian reasons”).“We have a duty toward our brothers and sisters who, for various reasons, have been forced to leave their homeland: a duty of justice, of civility and of solidarity”, Pope Francis said last February at the 6th International Forum on Migration and Peace.

Governments should certainly do their best to ensure the rescue of human lives and of those “travellers of misfortune” (Erri de Luca) in grave and immediate peril. But who said that EU governments actually have a moral and political obligation to open their borders to them, as suggested by a number of politically influential organisations like Open Democracy?

According to some, the perception of such an obligation derives from the West’s pathology of debt—or tyranny of guilt—for its colonial past.[2] It might well be. However, even if it is so, the remedy—the idea of an unlimited responsibility of EU governments towards third-country citizens—wouldn’t be any better than the evil that it seeks to sublimate.

Migrant Mother, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936

In both cases, a conceptual misunderstanding of the nature of government is at work. Indeed, a political community is not responsible for the fate of the whole world, unless it is a global Empire, a temptation that European countries have (in some cases regretfully) abandoned since the end of World War II. Each political community is responsible for the portion of territory—and of the people living within its borders—over which it exercises sovereignty, that is, its responsibility of government.

As David Miller, a political philosopher at Oxford University, puts it, governments have a duty, too often unfulfilled, to give priority to the well-being of their own citizens (a notion he calls “compatriot partiality”[3]). The responsibility of a political community is by definition limited, being first and foremost that of “responding” to its members. A state, or a community, is therefore not liable for humanity in general, for the simple reason that such a humanity does not exist: there are only human communities, since human beings always live in (more or less organised) communities: humans grazing in the wild state do not exist (as Aristotle put it, man is by nature “a political animal”).

3. Democracy, self-determination and border control 

A recurrent argument in the public debate on the migration issue—often associated to the ambiguous and essentially neoliberal concept of freedom of movement (of production factors) —is that democratic societies should transcend the notion of border. No misunderstanding could be more pernicious. It combines political utopianism with the infantile hope of being able to include millions of additional people without difficulties. Immigrants, however, are not merely “units of labour” and borders are not an obstacle, but the condition itself for the exercise of democracy (and of self-determination). There is indeed no history without geography. And a border is not simply a barrier, but the door that closes as well as the bridge that opens.

That’s why the “no borders” dream is the nightmare of a world reduced to a transit hall, or a non-place without unity or consistency[4]. Countries, however, are not empty shells that can be indifferently filled, and each community has the right to preserve its own way—and view—of life: self-determination, after all, is precisely the right of a society to shape and control its own destiny. It is not a coincidence that, while there is a widely accepted right to exit, no government recognises a universal right of entry. As noted by Miller, borders are vital to democratic self-determination, particularly since immigration can change the character of a country—the “self” in “self-determination”.

It is therefore necessary to discourage, by means of agreements with third-country governments, the would-be immigrants rather than making them promises and declarations of openness that we are not able to maintain.

The social, political and economic shock of anarchical immigration would indeed be catastrophic. As George J. Borjas, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government puts it: “We wanted workers, but we got people instead[5], suggesting that men are not interchangeable atoms with no soul nor tradition that can be freely transplanted. They are the byproduct of a specific cultural context and bring with themselves not only skills, but a historically (and geographically) determined system of values, not always compatible or easily reconcilable with ours.

Besides, the policy of systematic openness, advocated by certain activists and politicians, contributes—directly or indirectly—to the flourishing of a new slave trade that enriches thousands of smugglers, not less cruel or rapacious than those of past centuries.

4. Imperial over-stretching and the nemesis of power

Discouraging mass movement should be an essential part of a coherent governance of migration phenomena. Deterrence is essential, and spreading the right message is crucial. But it is not enough. The experience of recent years suggests that it is also necessary to change the foreign policy concept adopted by many EU and NATO countries over the last decades: the temptation to convert other—often poorer—countries to Western political models manu militari, that is, by means of military interventions (in praxis also known as “regime change”).

To be sure, mass migrations are more likely to occur (and to be facilitated) when the structure and functioning of local communities is severely damaged or hampered. Any foreign policy whose direct or indirect effect is political anarchy in the regions where it is applied is a ruinous course of action that should be regarded as the source of powerful migration push (or facilitating) factors: misery, violence, absence of social and economic perspectives, chaos.

Indeed, where the fundamental good of a society—order—is destroyed, no social, political or economic development can be imagined. The goal of attaining “human security” to stop or mitigate migration flows can have no meaning, if Western powers don’t cease, in the first place, to contribute to the political destabilisation of third countries.

As lucidly noted by Hedley Bull, “Justice, in any of its forms, is realisable only in a context of order; it is only if there is a pattern of social activity in which elementary or primary goals of social life are in some degree provided for, that advanced or secondary goals can be secured”[6].

In this regard, Europe has undoubtedly a share of responsibility for the current violence in the Middle East and in Northern Africa (and therefore for the lives of those fleeing from it). The problem here is our ceaseless temptation of intervening in the internal affairs of third countries, often in the name of human rights and the promotion of democracy.

However high the idealism behind the conduct of such a foreign policy, it forgets—if it has ever known—the lesson of Leibniz: that history, just like nature, does not make jumps[7], and that persuasion by example is more effective than indoctrination by force. Recent events demonstrated it clearly, once again: humanitarian interventions’ sole result has been that of sparking chaos and multiplying violence at the gates of Europe, destroying already fragile political equilibria and provoking a significant wave of migrants which is reaching Europe’s shores.

Too late, therefore, the EU global strategy (6/2017) advocates the “consolidation of the resilience” of local countries as part of the response to today’s geopolitical challenges: technically speaking, it closes the stable door after the horse has bolted.

5. Beyond turmoil, a positive agenda

Evidently enough, discouraging mass migration from Africa and other regions can be achieved only by minimising the push-factors that fuel it. This should be precisely the objective of a coherent and renewed foreign policy aiming at promoting stability, security and development in the countries of origin, while at the same time respecting their right to self-determination and effective political sovereignty. Such a policy would imply the exercise of a long-absent political virtue: strategic patience. After years of unilateralism, a multidimensional strategy taking into account the social, ethnical and religious complexity of the countries of origin, and transit (the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa) will be necessary to re-establish a form of order and promote sustainable stability and gradual institutional, economic and social development in the areas.

Given the mosaic of identities in the Mediterranean, the millennial conflicts between Sunni and Shia in the Middle East and the pre-colonial tribal divisions in Africa, the attempt to reverse historical legacies under combat conditions imbues the recent EU and NATO foreign policy—as Kissinger suggests—with a Sisyphean quality[8]. Strategic impatience and humanitarian interventionism crucially forget that human rights are not the pre-requisite of order, but its product.

Unilaterally intervening wherever violations of human rights occur, in theatres culturally, socially and historically different form ours, can only have the effect of producing a spiral of violence and poverty, condemning us not only to a ceaseless and useless fatigue of Sisyphus, but also to an unlimited, imperial and essentially neo-colonial responsibility, which we are not anymore willing nor capable to exert.

As the recent Rome MED Conference promoted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ISPI (convening in Rome over 45 Heads of State and Ministers with the aim of drafting a positive agenda for the Mediterranean) recognised, “The international community is still searching for the ‘right measure’ of its engagement” in the Mediterranean and the Middle East Region after “the mistakes” made in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Only after finding this “right measure”, however, will it be possible for EU powers to draw a new partnership framework with third countries, including structured and mutually advantageous forms of cooperation that can promote good governance and the gradual emergence of efficient public institutions, thereby supporting local paths to self-realisation and models of political organisation not necessarily identical to ours.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics.

Federico Nicolaci (1985) serves as Political Adviser to the Holy See, Città del Vaticano. He studied Philosophy at Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Politics and Government in the EU at LSE and Diplomacy at ISPI (Milan). He is the author of Patterns of Disintegration. The EU and the Emerging European Order (Seattle 2012), Tempio vuoto. Crisi e disintegrazione dell’Europa (Milan 2013) and other essays.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

A review of Nathalie Tocci’s ‘Framing the EU Global Strategy’

From Hybrid Peace to Human Security: Rethinking EU Strategy towards Conflict

The EU, a Fair-Weather Ship Between Scylla and Charybdis 

The Double Death of Europe


[1] D. Runcinam, The Politics of Good Intentions. History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order, Princeton University Press, 2006.

[2] See P. Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt. An Essay on Western Masochism, Princeton University Press, 2012.

[3] D. Miller, Strangers in Our Midst, Harvard University Press, 2016.

[4] The notion of “non-place” has been introduced by Marc Augé,: see M. Augé, Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Verso Books, 2009.

[5] G. J. Borjas, We Wanted Workers. Unraveling the Immigration Narrative, W W Norton & Co Inc, 2016.

[6] H. Bull, The Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics, Macmillan, 2012, p. 83.

[7] G. W. Leibniz, Nouveaux essais (1704) IV, 16, 12:  “Tout va par degrés dans la nature, et rien par saut”. The expression was reformualted in latin by C. Linneo, Philosophia botanica (1751) chapter 27: “Natura non facit saltus”.

[8] H. Kissinger, World Order, Penguin Press, 2014, Chapter 8.

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