As if they didn't have enough on their plates, the European leaders gathered at the Brussels summit are being asked to take on more financial liabilities. These are bigger commitments than an extra spoonful of Greek debt. Each leader will be expected to provide homes for tens of thousands of migrants, mainly Africans, who have arrived in Italy and Greece in leaky boats after a perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
The EU leaders cannot look away; images of the rescue by navy vessels off the Sicilian coast of the pathetic and forlorn appear nightly on TV. Over the past week, Britain has found itself on the front line as migrants at the Channel ports fight to gain access to U.K.-bound trucks. A hideous squatter camp in Calais, known as the jungle, has become home to thousands of illegal immigrants – Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese, Nigerians, Syrians and Afghans – hoping to steal, bribe or bully a ride across the Channel. When interviewed, the migrants express an urgent desire to get to Britain, which they perceive to be an El Dorado of jobs, welfare and free housing.
It's a myth, of course, although those who make it to the United Kingdom find work more easily than they would in the crisis-ridden, sclerotic and overregulated economies of southern Europe. Yet even if the migrants are mistaken, they are challenging some of the delusions of Brussels policy-makers. These would-be Europeans are just another unforeseen consequence of globalization and can hardly be blamed if they are prepared to move across continents to seek the comparative advantage of sheltering under a broken welfare umbrella, supported for the time being by an overvalued European currency.
In a world of globalized capitalism, in theory, money will seek out the best returns. Some emerging nations with market economies in Asia have done well with foreign direct investment, initially exploiting their comparative advantage of cheap labour in order to develop manufacturing export industries. However, not all states have been so astute and most of Africa has been subject to misrule, prone to civil war and socialist experiments under the jackboot leadership of tyrants and kleptocrats. Instead of allowing domestic African markets to develop commercially and attract inward investment, the prevailing current has gone the other way. Scarce financial capital has fled to tax havens and labour has moved to seek a living wage elsewhere.
It may seem a trivial observation but the TV interviews of Mediterranean "boat people" rarely involve translators. Many of the ragged migrants speak passable English and they seem to have money, having paid bribes of thousands of dollars to traffickers and people smugglers. Such journeys, thousands of miles, across deserts and war-ravaged countries, suggest people of considerable intelligence and ability. They are ragged but not ruined.
Free movement was what Europe was supposed to be about: the removal of borders so that goods, capital and labour could move freely within a common market. Unfortunately, even today, special interests and protective regulations hinder what should be the easy movement of businesses across the European Union. The continuing logjams exist because Europe's member states continue to face in two directions: on the one hand they pay lip service to the objective of creating a free market, but on the other, they continue to seek to protect the vested interests of individual nations or regions.
At the heart of this contradiction lies the euro itself, a currency that facilitates free movement of goods and capital but is not supported by the fiscal solidarity of the member states. Instead of strengthening Europe's weaker economies, the euro has proved to be a terrible mirage, an illusion of prosperity that has encouraged weak member states to borrow their way into unaffordable lifestyles rather than competing to their advantage at an affordable exchange rate. It is an unaffordable gold coin that has ruined economies that might have better prospered had they been trading with brass.
But the gold coin is also a magnet. Into this political confusion and economic failure, thousands of these desperate would-be Europeans arrive daily. More than 60,000 migrants have landed already in Italy this year to add to 170,000 arrivals in 2014. Some 40,000 have arrived this year in Greece. It seems unfair that some of the most vulnerable EU states have been forced to act as hosts and provide reception facilities for the poor, huddled masses. Yet, it is remarkable how canny and fleet of foot is the migrant work force from Africa. Large numbers evade the compulsory registration which would confine them to their state of entry, then flee on trains and buses away from the stagnant Mediterranean backwaters toward the promised lands of Britain, Germany, Holland and Sweden.
Desperate for work, the migrants are an embarrassing reproach to the EU, its unaffordable welfare systems and its manufactured travails. These unwanted immigrants are part of the real globalized world of fast-moving capital and labour. It is a world that the European leaders in Brussels would like to regulate or exclude for fear that it upsets the delicate protection afforded by the European welfare states and the single currency. Their efforts are unlikely to succeed.
Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.