Looking for the magic formula to generate new ideas

This week I was excited to participate in the Centre for European Policy Studies’s Ideas Lab, an event bringing together stakeholders from think tanks, governments, businesses, civil society, and institutions, to generate new ideas for European policies. I was hoping to be inspired with ideas that could feed into civil society’s ongoing discussions about the future of Europe. Unfortunately, I left disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the event was well organised and well attended. The many interesting workshops were set in a conventional ‘expert panel’ format, followed by questions and answers, instead of a more participatory method. While the panelists provided expertise, very few delivered any new thought-provoking ideas (despite the meeting being held under Chatham House rules, meaning speakers can’t be directly quoted by participants).

In one workshop the panel was asked if it is time to move beyond the “Dublin logic” (i.e. the EU Member State in which an asylum seeker first entered is responsible for their application for asylum). The panelists agreed that the current EU asylum system is not working: “28 individual systems would be less protective than one dysfunctional common EU system,” replied one speaker. Recognition of beneficiaries of international protection varies widely in the EU. For example, in some Member States no Afghan applicants are granted refugee status, and in others up to 17 percent are. This is why we need country guidelines, said another speaker. Other issues raised were better monitoring, ensuring that “safe countries” that people are sent back to really are safe, tackling human rights violations, and sanctioning Member States that do not enforce EU legislation. While these are all ways to improve the current EU asylum system, they are not radical new ideas to challenge our way of thinking. In another workshop about migrant smuggling there were at least some interesting questions raised: are current EU policies saving lives? What pushes people to go against the law? How do we create more space to discuss safe and legal passages to Europe as a way to tackle smuggling? How do we relate to history (for example, people who smuggled jewish people to safety during World War II were treated as smugglers at the time, but are now recognised as heros)? Another workshop asked if labour market integration of migrants in the EU is a success or not.

The panelists presented successful practices that eased integration in Sweden and Germany: language courses in combination with job training; local and regional cooperation to connect with businesses, institutions and education; and civil society involvement. One concern raised was about the ‘migrant economy’ that thrives because 80 percent of migrants and refugees find their jobs via family and friends and not via regular, legal means. Another problem is the ‘lock in effect’ because the overall time it takes to complete the asylum process, language courses and other education can lead to several years of exclusion from the labour market. In other parts of Europe the situation is very different. In Greece, the state lacks an integration plan and discussions on the topic are still in their infancy. Inadequate access to language courses, education and support services addressing psychological trauma migrants may have suffered are just some of the many barriers the speakers identified. The fact that the majority of Somali migrants in Sweden are unemployed, whereas the opposite is true in the United States demonstrates that non-integration is often matter of discrimination in labour market access, rather than cultural differences. The points made were all of key importance, but I missed the space to go beyond preaching to those already on the same page and instead name the elephant in the room, in other words addressing sensitive issues of, for example, islamophobia, xenophobia, nationalism and political leadership in relation to integration.

The one speaker that impressed me the most was Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta. Mr Muscat opened by stating that he would not give a diplomatic keynote speech, as expected by a Prime Minister. Instead, he presented five unexpected proposals to change Europe. Firstly, introduce bitcoin – a crypto-currency and a payment system – to become the continent of innovation. Secondly, sell citizenship as a business investment. Thirdly, a social pact to promote equality for all and mobility in Europe. Fourthly, put in place an integration Brexit fund. And finally, open negotiations for Turkey’s membership to the EU with regards to the areas of justice, freedom and security (Chapter 34). These ideas sparked many reactions and interesting discussions.

I left the event with the sense that many actors in Europe, including civil society in Brussels, are eager to find ways to generate new ideas and solutions to address the current political climate, including the consequences of the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU and President Trump in United States. I believe we have not yet find the magic formula of how to do it. We need to find ways of having meaningful conversations when we have the opportunity to meet, and also elaborate ways to continue such conversations online.