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Reassessing the ‘control gap’ debate. The making of family migration policies in France, Germany and the Netherlands, 1955-1985

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation

For more than fifteen years, there has been a lively debate among migration scholars in Europe and North-America about how to explain the paradox that large-scale settlement has taken place in Western States over the last fifty years, even though governments and publics alike considered such immigration unwanted.

This project assesses existent hypotheses, based on a comparative analysis of the making of family migration policies in France, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Netherlands from the 1950s until the 1980s. In contrast to previous contributions to the ‘control gap’ debate which were mostly based on broad overviews of policy developments, this project consists of a detailed reconstruction of policy making processes both at administrative and political levels, taking into account the internal plurality of states and the different positions adopted by different state actors. It focuses on a specific policy field that is a prototypical example of the paradox of migration in liberal states, but has thus far enjoyed very little scholarly attention, namely family migration.


The following three main hypotheses have been distilled from existent research to explain ‘why liberal states accept unwanted migration’. First, national policy makers are said to have lost power over migration policies, either to the courts or to supranational actors, and to have therefore been unable to steer their preferred restrictive policy course. Second, it is argued that concentrated group interests have outweighed the diffuse collective interest in decision-making processes, mostly because small well-organised groups such as employers developed close ties with policy makers and succeeded in shifting policies their way. Finally, policy making in restricted institutional settings outside of public view, such as courts and administrations, is stated to have facilitated the allocation of rights to migrants, thereby weakening the possibility for governments to control their entry and stay.

This project builds on previous work, in which the making of Dutch family migration policies since the 1950s were mapped out. Tracing the history of French and German family migration policy – histories which have not yet been written – allow this research to evaluate whether the conclusions  drawn from the Dutch case apply more broadly. 

Academic relevance

This project will yield new insights into whether or not there are limits to states’ capacities to regulate migration, and if so to which extent and of what nature. Furthermore, it will contribute to our understanding of the dynamics of the making of the policies that have allowed for the large-scale immigration flows in Europe since the 1950s, flows that have fundamentally altered the face of Western-European societies. 

Funding: NWO Veni 

dr. S.A. (Saskia) Bonjour

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation