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1Immigration to Europe is a contentious political issue and the functioning of the European migration regime is in question. Taking a step back and seeing how the European migration regime developed therefore deserves attention. While the regime’s foundations had a substantial impact on the lives of millions of migrants, the regime itself changed over the years rather significantly. It was subject to multiple national interests of different EU member states. Emmanuel Comte takes the reader on a journey through this history and sheds light on the development of a common European migration regime; a process that is characterised at the same time by internal openness and freedom of movement of labour and external restrictiveness with protection of the external borders.

2The main objective of the book is to explain how the European migration regime developed, from the end of the 1940s to the beginning of the 1990s. To that end, Comte focuses on the German capability to shape the evolution of the migration regime according to its national preferences. The author builds his argument in five chronological chapters, each spanning about a decade. He closely traces the historical positions and economic and social developments in the key states.

3A rigorous and comprehensive analysis of a vast amount of different primary documents, meeting minutes, court and other documents is the basis of Comte’s book. The sources derive from archives of the EU institutions, the OEEC, the Council of Europe; intergovernmental institutions; and the archives of the German Auswärtiges Amt and the French presidential archives. While these different periods relate broadly to policy changes in Germany, the author is able to combine them with a wider European picture and argues convincingly that during these periods, different migration interests and policy objectives prevailed, all contributing to the migration regime in the 1990s.

4The first stage of the European migration regime, 1947 to 1954 was determined by multiple forms of tension that arose between West Germany and Italy on the one side and the other countries of Western Europe on the other. After the end of World War II, conflicting positions on free movement of people and on multilateral versus national needs and socio-economic disparities emerged. They led to an evolvement in “dual form” (p.41) between north-western Europe and the central and southern countries of Western Europe; this in turn exacerbated diverging conditions on labour markets and uneven migration opportunities. In line with West German preferences, freedom of movement was already enshrined at that moment. It built a basis for further discussions in upcoming years.

5During the period of 1955 to 1964, first changes were made to the regime. West Germany had an increased labour demand due to economic growth and the resulting capability to manage migratory and financial burdens. Yet here were strong tensions between the objectives of France and West Germany. West German influence was only secured by financial concessions to the European Development Fund and the Common Agricultural Policy made with a view to mitigate French concerns. In return, the regime was defined by limiting migration opportunities for European populations while extending them to Greece, Turkey and Eastern European countries and preventing family migration by keeping families in the country of origin.

6As Comte states, this led to “uncoupling forces” (p.76) in the years from 1965 to 1973, due to growing divergences between West Germany and France. Their labour markets demanded different types of immigration. The demographic pressure was disparate and organised independent occupations played a more crucial role in France. All of this put an end to what Comte calls “regime spread” (p.102). However, the West German interests prevailed and, gradually, the migration regime opened up (again).

7These progresses ended in the period from 1973 to 1984 when the regime became more protectionist in particular for non-European migrants. During that time, there was selective enlargement with the accession of Greece and the start of accession negotiations with Spain and Portugal. Also, Comte asserts that Turkey’s large migratory potential explains why it was not integrated in the open migration regime (p.118). The status quo was kept. Reduced migration opportunities came along with an increase in minimum wages, a stagnant international migration cooperation, and an absence of recognition of qualifications. Eventually, however, West German positions were mostly asserted – given the favourable initial situation – which is shown, among other things, by the promotion of family benefit exports.

8In the last chapter, covering the period from 1984 to 1992, Comte stresses that the selective and regionalist approach was further pursued, facilitated by a renewed cooperation between France, Britain and Germany. With the Schengen Agreement, internal border controls were abolished. The Single Market opened up for close market integration. At the same time, limitations on visas and external border controls were put in place. All of this made external immigration more restrictive. Comte adds additional features, namely the favouring of skilled migrants to accompany the expansion of big firms and the creation of a European citizenship, emerging within a common foreign and security policy after the Cold War. In the author’s view, this process was emblematic of European integration as a whole at that time. The characteristics of the migration regime were more of an outcome of this integration than an intentional decision-making process at that stage.

9On the one hand, the argument of the book relates to discussions on liberalism, the political economy of migration and freedom of movement. [1] Here, the author acknowledges that there was important issue linkage with (German) economic and social interests in order to promote a more liberal intra-EU migration regime, evolved by the establishment of the export of social benefits to countries of origin (p.4). On the other hand, it talks to the ongoing discussion about a reform of the European migration regime and European integration in general. [2] The author positions himself on the side of intergovernmental arguments by highlighting the general influence of member state positions, first and foremost Germany, but also of other big member states – also due to external pressures like the end of the Cold War (p.166/167). At any rate, the specific national interests seem to shape the evolution of the regime more than institutional preferences for multilateral answers – a finding that gains new importance in light of the diverse positions of member states in coping with the “migration crisis” of 2015/2016. Furthermore, the process of influencing the creation of this regime is portrayed – for Germany at least – to have been more a means than an objective; foremost to foster economic integration. While this is convincing to some extent, there is a risk that this is a too one-sided assessment.

10Some minor questions arise with regard to other issues as well: First, from a German perspective, the early chapters of the book would have gained from a closer engagement with the Gastarbeiter programme. Moreover, the discussion about openness is likely to have benefited from a closer look at other forms of cooperation with third countries concerning visas and circular migration.

11Overall, however, the argument is well-developed. Thanks to its rich archival sources, the book is well substantiated and able to explain the (lack of) decision-making when it comes to the most recent developments in EU migration policy. Notwithstanding the non-considerations of some factors of possible influence, the book is an insightful read and helps to understand the development of the European migration regime in a comprehensive and prolific way.


  • [1]
    James Hollifield, Immigrants, Markets and States, Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA, 1992; Gary Freeman, “Modes of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States”, International Migration Review, 1995, 29(4), p. 881-902.
  • [2]
    James Hampshire, “European migration governance since the Lisbon treaty: introduction to the special issue”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2015, 42(4), p. 537-553.
Philipp Stutz
Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Uploaded on on 22/11/2019
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