IT WAS LIKE watching paint dry, or other people’s children play baseball. Last month Gert Raudsep, an Estonian actor, spent two hours on prime-time television reading out the text of a UN migration agreement. Estonia’s government was tottering over whether to pull out of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, to give it its full name. So Mr Raudsep was invited to present the source of the discord to worried viewers. Thoughts of weary migrants from Africa and Latin America kept him going, he said. “But my eyes got a bit tired.”
Mr Raudsep’s recital made for dull viewing because the compact is a dull document. Its 23 “objectives” are peppered with vague declarations, platitudes and split differences. Partly in the spirit of other global agreements like the Paris climate deal, it encourages states to co-operate on tricky cross-border matters without forcing them to do anything. It urges governments to treat migrants properly, but also to work together on sending them home when necessary. At best it helps build the trust between “sending” and “receiving” countries that is the foundation of any meaningful international migration policy.
None of this has prevented European governments from melting down over it. In the end Estonia resolved its row; it will join more than 180 other countries in Marrakesh on December 10th-11th to adopt the compact. But so far at least ten others, including seven from Europe, have followed the lead of Donald Trump and pulled out of a deal that they helped negotiate. The agreement is agitating parliaments, sparking protests and splintering coalitions; Belgium’s is on the verge of collapse. More withdrawals may follow.
Why the fuss? The text explicitly states that governments retain the sovereign right to make immigration policy. But critics say that cannot be trusted. Although the compact is not legally binding, they argue it is “soft law” that might one day be used to press governments into hard commitments, such as acknowledging a “human right” to migration or expanding the grounds for asylum.
This is, largely, codswallop. The compact is hardly perfect; the drafters should have refrained from urging governments to “educate” journalists on migration, for example, or to hold “culinary festivals” to celebrate multiculturalism. Yet until cynical politicians started paying attention, the main charge the compact faced was toothlessness. Most of the political arguments against it emerged after governments had already approved the draft in July.
That suggests other forces are at work. In Slovakia, the compact stirred passions only after the speaker of parliament, embroiled in a plagiarism scandal, sought a way to change the subject. The government has since withdrawn from the compact, which led the foreign minister, a former president of the UN General Assembly, to offer his resignation. In Germany a row over the compact, triggered by the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), has forced the candidates running to succeed Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union to declare themselves: for or against? (The party chooses her successor on December 7th.) Now the AfD boasts, correctly, that its ideas have infiltrated the mainstream.
As has become depressingly routine in Europe, the row over the UNcompact has little to do with its ostensible target and everything to do with the smouldering embers of a culture war that the drastic reduction in illegal immigration since the surge of 2015 has failed to extinguish. (A pointless spat over border controls nearly destroyed Mrs Merkel’s coalition earlier this year.) Immigration remains a potent topic for the right; the trouble in Belgium started when the country’s largest party, the nationalist New Flemish Alliance, began a social-media campaign against the compact, replete with imagery of women in niqabs and the like (it later apologised). But in the absence of a genuine crisis to mobilise support, fake problems must be confected. The UN compact is a sitting duck. There is no downside to hammering a multilateral agreement on a controversial subject negotiated by obscure officials in air-conditioned rooms abroad. That it was agreed by governments in plain sight, with parliamentarians invited to participate, is by-the-by.
In Berlin, where outrage over the compact took the establishment by surprise, some say the government should have forcefully made the case for it as soon as it was agreed. Instead, caught on the back foot, Mrs Merkel and other defenders of the deal are locked into an awkward argument: that fears about the compact are overblown because it is not legally binding, but that it is also an important tool for managing migration. Yet aside from Mrs Merkel’s perennial reluctance to lead rather than react to debates, arguing for the deal earlier would simply have given opponents a bigger target and more time to shoot at it. A more sobering conclusion is that, for now, it has become impossible to have a level-headed conversation about managing migration in Europe.
UN insiders profess themselves frustrated but unbowed by the string of withdrawals. (Many blame Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, whose decision in October to pull out inspired several others to follow.) Although the idea for the compact was drawn up just after Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015-16—indeed, partly at the request of panicked European leaders—its provisions are global. Europe’s navel-gazing arguments have little bearing on the lot of Bangladeshi workers in the Gulf or Zimbabweans in South Africa.
True enough. But Europe’s rejectionist governments are shooting themselves in the foot nonetheless. Even a hard-headed policy of tough border controls, swift return of illegal immigrants and encouraging would-be migrants to stay home obliges governments to work with others, if only to strike grubby repatriation deals. Building trust by sticking to international commitments lays the foundations for that. That so many governments are choosing to do precisely the opposite does not inspire hope that Europe is groping towards a more sensible migration policy.