(CN) – Europeans have a new topic to disagree about when it comes to the debate over whether immigration is good or bad: A legally nonbinding United Nations compact that urges nations to do more to help and protect immigrants around the world.
The compact is set to be agreed upon by numerous world leaders – not including the United States, which dropped out a year ago – next week at an intergovernmental conference in Marrakesh, Morocco.
But the compact – formally called the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – and its possible legal implications are roiling European politics.
Generally, those on the political far right oppose the compact and argue that it will become a legal instrument to force countries to open their borders to immigrants while encouraging even more immigration around the world.
“It is legalization of mass migration,” said Marcel de Graaff, a Dutch far-right leader in the European Parliament, at a recent news conference. “It is declaring migration as a human right.”
De Graaff went further in his fear-mongering. He claimed the compact would make it a criminal offense to criticize immigration and ultimately silence political parties like his, the Party for Freedom.
Legal experts, while not all in agreement, point out that the compact is nonbinding and explicitly spells out that it does not supersede a nation’s immigration laws.
“The compact is clearly and explicitly stated in it that it is not legally binding,” said Elspeth Guild, a law professor at Queen Mary, University of London, in an email to Courthouse News on Wednesday.
She added that nations which adopt the pact would be expected to “approach migration, border control and asylum from the perspective of a shared responsibility.”
In addition, Guild said to comply with duties under the U.N. charter, nations would be expected to “ensure that their national legislation is consistent” with the pact.
“This is not a legal obligation but a duty of good faith to the U.N.,” she said.
The pact sets out a range of objectives. They include fighting human smuggling, protecting the human rights of immigrants, providing health care and labor standards to immigrants and making sure they are accurately documented and tracked.
But Guild said the compact in itself does not encourage mass migration and saying as much amounts to political fear-mongering.
Like dominoes falling, though, several European countries have declared that they will not adopt the compact or announced objections to it.
At the end of October, Austria’s government, where a far-right party is in a ruling coalition, said it would not adopt the compact. Others followed: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Croatia.
In a big blow to the pact’s supporters, Italy’s government recently said it would not agree to the pact and instead will let Parliament decide whether to join. Switzerland, which is not in the European Union, has pulled out too. Elsewhere, Israel and Australia are rejecting it.
The fight over the compact is roiling politics in Belgium and Germany too.
In Belgium, the right-wing New Flemish Alliance, the largest party in a center-right government, is loudly denouncing the pact.
The party started – and then quickly ended – a much-criticized campaign against it. The campaign consisted of images with immigrants and warnings that agreeing to the pact would lead to “access to social security, even for illegal immigrants” and that the pact would make it easier for immigrants to bring family members to the countries where they live.
The crisis forced Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel into an awkward position because he had previously agreed to adopt the pact. The Belgian Parliament debated the issue on Wednesday.
In Germany, meanwhile, the pact has become fodder in a battle over who will take over the chairmanship of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union.
Two of the leading candidates for the top position, Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, have come out against it.
In a manifesto, conservatives within the CDU and a Bavarian sister party, represented by the Union of Values group, warn that the “far-reaching” pact downplays the problems of “uncontrolled immigration,” “waters down” the differences between “controlled and uncontrolled immigration” and thereby would restrict Germany from deciding on who to allow into the country. They also worry about a clause in the pact that says migrants should be ensured access to state services.
“Adopting the migration pact holds more risks for Germany than opportunities,” the manifesto states.
Merkel, meanwhile, has defended the pact and plans to be in Morocco for next week’s conference. She went before the Bundestag on Nov. 21 and made a passionate speech in which she argued that the pact would help solve a global problem through an international effort.
Merkel has been fiercely criticized for her positions on immigration. Before a massive influx of immigrants and refugees in 2015, Merkel largely ignored pleas from Italy and Greece seeking help to deal with boatloads of people arriving on their shores. Then in 2015, she called for opening Europe’s borders and more than 1 million people entered Europe that year, sinking her popularity.
Since then, Europe has tightened its borders and kept many immigrants out while also paying Turkey billions of dollars to handle refugees from the Syrian conflict and elsewhere. These policies pushed by Merkel have been widely criticized too.
Immigration is one of Europe’s most hotly debated political issues and backlash against immigrants has led to the rise of far-right parties across Europe.
The U.N. pact was born in the aftermath of the 2015 immigration crisis, largely upon Europe’s call for global solutions to the mass movement of people.
According to the U.N., there are more than 258 million people living outside their home country and this number is expected to increase due to population growth, globalization, rising inequality and climate change.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.