Hard Evidence: which EU countries can afford to take the most refugees?

The EU is asking member states to take just a few thousand refugees each. EPA

In its new policy on migration, the European Commission has proposed a fairer sharing of responsibility between member states for 20,000 displaced people. These people would be able to move to an EU member state without having to risk their lives on a Mediterranean crossing. The priority regions identified for resettlement are the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

The numbers are small but before the proposals were even published, the UK Home Secretary Theresa May had indicated that Britain would exercise its legal right to opt out of the scheme. Denmark and Ireland are also not necessarily bound by the provisions of a resettlement scheme.

How would such a scheme work and to which EU members would these people move? The first point to note is that this is not a system for the wholesale redistribution of asylum applicants. The scheme is a much more limited attempt to redistribute people identified as being in need of protection based on measureable indicators of a member state’s capacity to protect, such as a member state’s wealth and population.

The commission does say that it will bring forward proposals later in 2015 for a system to deal with those in need of protection when there are mass influxes, but even this falls short of a scheme for full redistribution of applicants.

Uneven distribution

Currently, asylum applicants are distributed very unevenly across the EU. Of the 626,000 applications made in the EU in 2014, Germany received 202,815 – just under a third of the EU total. Of these, 47,555 were granted protection – a recognition rate of around 23%.

The numbers moving to Germany were more than twice the number of applications made in any other EU member state and more than six times greater than the 31,945 applications made in the UK. Add the 81,000 applications made in Sweden and we see that 45% of applications were made in just two member states.

Europe has been called to action. EPA/Jose Sena Goulao

The commission is not planning to redistribute all asylum applicants for a good reason. In effect, that would mean moving tens of thousands of people around the EU with little regard for the humanitarian, social and political consequences. It’s difficult to see how a scheme based on numbers of applicants alone would be desirable or practical without considering how these people would fare in their new homes.

Sharing responsibility

The idea is instead to invest €50m to take in 20,000 people whose need for international protection has been recognised by the UN. The commission identifies four variables that will be put into a formula to determine how these 20,000 people will be distributed across the EU: country population size; GDP; unemployment and the existing numbers of asylum-seeker and refugees over the period 2010-14. Taken together these indicate “protective capacity”. Population size and GDP are positively correlated with this protective capacity while unemployment and existing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees is negatively correlated.

Using 2013 data, the effect of weighting these variables shows Germany’s protective capacity is the highest in the EU. France, the UK and Estonia all rank highly. A straightforward reading is that Germany would take 10.82% of the asylum-seekers, the UK would take 7.91%, while at the other end of the scale, Cyprus would take 0.98%.

A Protective Capacity Index with equal weighting for GDP, population size, unemployment and numbers of refugees/asylum-seekers. Eurostat 2103

However, the European Commission plans to weight the variables. Population size and wealth will each account for 40% of the total while unemployment and existing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees account for only 10% each.

Once those weightings are applied, the picture changes slightly. Germany remains the most able to take in migrants and should have capacity for 3,684. France too, still ranks towards the top of the scale and can take in 2,834.

Estonia, on the other hand tumbles down the scale with a capacity of 1.76% meaning it would only be asked to take in 352 people. Estonia doesn’t take in many asylum seekers at the moment but its comparatively small GDP and population mean that it would not be asked to take many more. This shows how the weighting system means more displaced people will be directed to bigger member states – with around half going to Germany, France, Spain and Poland.

Top five resettlement destinations. Author provided

The UK’s protective capacity works out at around 11.5% of the EU total, which would translate into 2,309 displaced people moving to the UK. That’s fairly high up the scale but hardly an overwhelming number.

Upon hearing that the UK was refusing to take part in the resettlement programme, Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission questioned whether Theresa May had actually read the plans before she ruled out UK participation.

But she may well have and decided to oppose the plan anyway. The numerical implications for the UK might be relatively small but the wider point for a sovereignty-conscious Conservative government would be ceding control to the EU on a contentious issue in the run up to the 2017 referendum. This seems to trump all other concerns.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.