Europe’s refugee crisis initially drove EU member states apart. Confronted in mid-2015 with a mass inflow of asylum seekers that threatened internal political stability, member states returned to the logic of narrow national self-interest. But as attitudes toward refugees have hardened in even the most generous countries since late 2015, a new consensus seems to be emerging. The concept of shutting out migrants by reinforcing the EU’s external border and persuading third countries to prevent people from crossing into the EU is gaining ground.
While superficially attractive in reuniting the EU, such a Fortress Europe project would shatter on the geographic, political, and economic complexities of Europe’s neighborhood. Rather than rebuilding the EU’s legitimacy, it would end up creating more tensions and greater nationalist anger.
It would be much better to recognize that significant migration will continue but needs to be managed responsibly through stronger collective efforts. Winning public support for such a pragmatic course of action depends on political leaders who do not capitulate to the current rise of populism.
Freedom of Movement in the Age of Renationalization
The European response to the refugee crisis has been rooted in deep-seated structural factors. An important one is the tension between the EU’s economically driven liberalization agenda and the ongoing renationalization of European politics. Migration happens to be one of the main battlegrounds where these different conceptions of organizing life in Europe clash.
With freedom of movement, each EU member state offers foreigners from other EU countries a legal right to work and reside in its territory. By participating in the Schengen system of passport-free travel, a state gives up physical control over who crosses its border. Schengen therefore constitutes an even more drastic infringement on traditional concepts of state sovereignty than does EU membership.
A widely supported view on the moral philosophy of migration holds that making decisions about admission and exclusion is a nation-state’s inherent right and the deepest expression of self-determination. “Without [such decisions], there could not be communities of character, historically stable, ongoing associations of men and women with some special commitment to one another and some special sense of their common life,” wrote U.S. political thinker Michael Walzer. A controlled border is thus seen as an essential requirement for maintaining distinct cultures and identities.
The EU is therefore highly unusual in allowing citizens of its 28 member states to work and live in any part of the union. In the Western world, similar arrangements exist only between Australia and New Zealand.
Freedom of movement in the EU did not come about with the explicit intention of forging a new community of character in the sense of the quote above. Although the original motivation for European integration was political, since the 1950s the process has focused primarily on eliminating obstacles to trade and on building a larger economic space. Transnational mobility of workers corresponded to this logic. Together with the free movement of goods, services, and capital, the free movement of workers constituted one of the four elements of the internal market. This principle was later extended to cover dependents, students, and pensioners. As of 2014, about 14 million citizens of EU member states, or 2.8 percent of the union’s total population, resided in another EU country.
Similarly, the motivation for setting up the Schengen system was to a large extent economic. Abolishing border controls facilitates trade and the mobility of labor and therefore seemed a useful complement to the EU’s internal market. But Schengen was also meant to give visible expression to the fact that European integration had advanced to a new type of transnational community whose citizens enjoyed an “area of freedom, security and justice,” in the words of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
Long celebrated as one of the key achievements of the integration process, freedom of movement became controversial following the EU’s 2004 enlargement when a large number of workers from the new member states moved to the richer regions of the EU. Particularly in the UK, this triggered considerable resentment among parts of the population. Regaining full sovereign control over immigration has become the central argument of those who wish the UK to leave the EU following the referendum to be held on Britain’s EU membership in June 2016.
A zone without internal controls requires an effective system for managing the external border, common visa policies, and agreed rules on asylum and immigration. The experience since 2015 has made abundantly clear that the arrangements developed by the EU for this purpose have been insufficient to resist the pressure of massive migration flows.
However, ultimately it was not the incomplete regulatory framework or the lack of capacity of the common institutions that made the Schengen arrangements so vulnerable. The core of the problem was plainly political.
The EU had eliminated one of the key functions of traditional statehood—control over entry into territory—without creating a common political space and a sense of European identity that would anchor such a far-reaching innovation in a solid foundation. Strong leadership of a functioning transnational community would respond to asymmetrical challenges in a manner that would preserve the common good effectively, even at times of uncertainty and stress. The EU failed to establish such a robust transnational community. On the contrary, recent decades have been marked by the reassertion of the primacy of the nation-state. The European Council, in which the chiefs of the EU’s national executives come together, emerged as the central decisionmaking forum. National elections continue to determine the distribution of political power, and public debate for the most part remains fragmented along national lines.
The absence of strong, institutionally grounded solidarity became painfully evident in 2015, when the numbers of refugees began to rise dramatically. The EU’s capacity for joint action diminished rapidly, as both the public and the political elites in the member states reflexively reverted to national modes of thinking and increasingly favored national action.
The Welcoming Culture and the Backlash Against It
In the summer of 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming attitude toward the refugees made sense in the context of Germany’s historical legacy, strong economy, and weak demographics. Initially, this Willkommenskultur had broad public support not only in Germany but also in Sweden, Austria, and a number of other countries. Sympathy with the plight of the refugees mobilized civil society and led to impressive and sustained displays of solidarity and support.
By contrast, in France, Germany’s principal EU partner, where the rightist National Front had turned immigration into a toxic issue and where the terrorist threat dominated the public space, this policy met with skepticism from the outset. Even more negative were the reactions in Central European member states, which had lived in relative isolation for decades and whose societies were unprepared for large influxes of foreigners.
In most EU countries, immigration rapidly became one of the most polarizing issues. While the consequences of the crisis for most peoples’ daily lives remained modest, its psychological impact was immense. The crisis dominated social and traditional media and rattled the established political order. Rightist political parties that had always exploited fears about immigrants had a field day attacking governments and EU institutions for not getting a grip on the problem. And as the public mood gradually shifted toward a more skeptical attitude, mainstream parties increasingly bought into the populist agenda.
As Europeans learned in the euro crisis, fear can be a powerful integrative force. The shared risk of an imminent economic catastrophe enforced a basic solidarity among eurozone countries that was strong enough to overcome the deep cleavages between debtors and creditors and the widespread reluctance to further weaken national sovereignty. To prevent the collapse of the eurozone, governments agreed to significantly strengthen the monetary union, including adopting the European Stability Mechanism as the eurozone’s permanent bailout fund and important new powers for the European Commission and the European Central Bank.
The dynamic of the refugee crisis in its early stages showed that fear can also be a powerful disintegrative force. Concern about the destabilization of national politics undermined the solidarity that would have underpinned a convincing collective response from the EU. Fear drove governments to resort to national measures, even though this meant questioning the future of the Schengen system. The reinstatement of border controls also had considerable economic costs. But unlike in the euro crisis, these economic considerations were outweighed by the primacy of domestic politics. The prevailing mind-set of “everyone for himself” seemed to put the future of European integration at risk.
The New Restrictive Consensus
Developments since late 2015 have shown, however, that shared fear might once again facilitate a return to a collective approach, albeit on the basis of a much more restrictive policy. As concern over the fate of victims of war and repression has given way to worries about the stability of host societies, one EU member state after the other has fallen in line with a tougher approach toward the refugees.
By the end of 2015, attitudes toward the refugees had hardened even in the most welcoming countries. Sweden, which had received the greatest number of refugees per capita, simply ran out of capacity and suddenly shifted to a restrictive policy. In Germany, attacks by migrants against women during New Year’s Eve celebrations marked a turning point in the public mood. While Merkel continued to lead the fight for an EU-wide solution and resisted demands to close the German border to asylum seekers, she too shifted and aimed at a drastic reduction of the inflow of people. The Austrian government, initially a close ally of Germany’s, facing rapidly rising support for the rightist opposition, became the champion of closing the Western Balkan migration route at the Greek-Macedonian border, a move that left Greece burdened with thousands of stranded refugees.
Although differences on the right strategy persisted, EU leaders from Berlin to Warsaw converged on the priority of drastically cutting the number of new arrivals. This fresh consensus finally resulted in the EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016. In this deal, Ankara committed to take back all the immigrants landing on the Greek islands from Turkey. The EU, for its part, promised to accept an equivalent number of asylum seekers through direct resettlement from Turkey (but only up to a maximum of 72,000 people). In addition, Ankara won concessions on visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU and on Turkey’s EU accession talks as well as substantial financing for accommodating refugees on its territory.
Only a few months earlier, the idea of returning all newly arrived asylum seekers on the Greek islands to Turkey would have met with strong opposition in several EU capitals. The mainstream view was that Turkey could not be considered a safe country and that the Greek authorities lacked the capacity to handle such a process well. However, in March 2016, despite harsh criticism from UN agencies and NGOs and widespread doubts regarding the policy’s conformity with international and EU law, this arrangement found the unanimous agreement of the 28 member states.
As of April 2016, the agreement seems to have achieved the immediate objective of drastically reducing the number of asylum seekers arriving in Greece. If this effect can be sustained—which, in light of the multiple political, legal, and logistical problems, cannot be taken for granted—the deal will have helped bring one important source of immigration under control. But the challenge of immigration will certainly persist. Already, the focus is shifting from the Balkans to the Mediterranean route, with the number of crossings from Libya going up.
The fact that the EU has finally regained some capacity for collective efforts on migration is certainly positive. However, the convergence of member states’ policies toward a much more restrictive approach could become problematic. If current trends continue, the EU risks sliding toward policies based primarily on exclusion that in the longer term will prove counterproductive.
The False Promises of Fortress Europe
Populist parties have long supported the concept of Fortress Europe. The German anti-Islam movement known as Pegida even launched an international initiative under this name. Recently, however, a number of mainstream politicians have also expressed their support for pulling up the drawbridge. The notion that the influx of refugees and migrants needs to be not just reduced but definitively ended is steadily gaining support. Following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, concerns about the use of migration routes to channel terrorists into the EU will further strengthen the case for radical restrictions of immigration.
The proponents of Fortress Europe demand massively reinforced military and policing efforts at the EU’s external border to deter and contain migration flows. This, supporters argue, should be achieved through stronger national efforts, if necessary with the support of other member states and the EU. Closing the external border should be combined with robust arrangements with neighboring states to keep potential migrants on those states’ territories and to prevent these people from even trying to move to Europe.
Putting aside ethical concerns and the strictures of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the promise of regaining tranquillity in European societies and restoring the EU’s unity through a tough approach to asylum and immigration is superficially attractive. Such an approach would also defuse one of the most controversial elements of a European solution to the refugee crisis, namely the need to ensure that the responsibility for taking care of refugees is fairly shared among member states. By effectively keeping refugees out of Europe in the first place, a Fortress Europe policy would greatly reduce the burden to be shared and therefore obviate the necessity of such arrangements. And the conflicts between the first EU countries in which migrants arrive, the transit states, and the countries of final destination—conflicts that have bedeviled the EU’s work on this issue—would disappear.
But would such a course of action work in practice? There are many reasons to doubt this.
Unlike Australia, whose harsh policies toward asylum seekers are sometimes presented as a model, Europe is not geographically isolated but surrounded by heavily populated regions with which it is connected through a dense network of ties. Any attempt to insulate EU territory and keep foreigners away through restrictive visa policies, technical surveillance, and fences and walls would have prohibitive costs and uncertain prospects. Given the length and complexity of the EU’s external border, migrants and people smugglers would still seek and find alternative routes.
The vast sea border to the south of Europe presents particular challenges. It is sometimes suggested that the EU should follow the Australian example of turning boats around and towing them back to where they started out. But aside from the doubtful legality of such action, this policy could easily have a high cost in human lives. Refugees would choose riskier routes to avoid detection or use unseaworthy vessels that cannot be turned back. While working hard to discourage sea crossings from Turkey and Libya, the EU has so far not abandoned the principle that people in danger of drowning need to be rescued. Any different course of action would be hard to reconcile with any residual commitment to European values.
Equally problematic is the idea of outsourcing major parts of migration control to the EU’s neighbors. This presupposes that these countries enjoy functioning state structures and a minimal standard of the rule of law. These conditions are currently completely lacking in Libya and are questionable in a number of other Southern Mediterranean countries. Forcing fragile states to detain large numbers of potential migrants might destabilize these countries further.
Strengthening local administrative capacity for border management and developing a system of readmission agreements can be useful elements of an overall EU strategy, but cooperation on migration control cannot be imposed by fiat. A Fortress Europe mind-set from the EU would be counterproductive, as it would greatly damage economic, cultural, and human relations with regional neighbors. Such an approach would hurt important interests of the EU and its member states. And it would harm economic development, aggravate governance problems, and undermine stability in neighboring regions. In the end, Fortress Europe might well increase migration pressures rather than reduce them.
Sustainable solutions need to be based on genuine partnership with regional neighbors. These neighbors often have considerable leverage and insist on having their interests taken into account—interests that frequently include the demand for greater mobility for their citizens. The case of the EU-Turkey deal illustrates this well. There is already great reluctance in many EU countries to grant Turkey the early visa liberalization promised in this agreement. If the spreading Fortress Europe mind-set denies Turkey this key concession, this will probably also end Turkey’s efforts to block the inflow of refugees.
Better Management of Migration
The EU’s space of free movement will remain fragile as long as its political dimension remains fragmented along national lines. Faced with strong asymmetrical migratory pressures, the European space will splinter into its constituent parts, which will follow their own trajectories determined by the dynamics of internal politics. It is unlikely that this structural deficit of the arrangements on free movement and of the Schengen Area can be remedied soon. On the contrary, the ongoing reaffirmation of nation-state identities has been further reinforced in the course of the present crisis and will stand in the way of any major EU reform.
Initially divided in their attitudes to the inflows of refugees, member states have gradually converged on a restrictive approach in line with the increasingly negative mood among large parts of the European public. But it would be an illusion to believe that stability can be regained by closing Europe’s borders and by persuading neighboring countries to prevent migrants and refugees from attempting to enter EU territory. The EU does not have the capability to ensure a watertight insulation of member states against migrants, and a Fortress Europe approach will not convince neighboring countries to cooperate in setting up repressive mechanisms to eliminate migration. A policy focused only on keeping people out will just create unrealistic expectations that will end in an even worse populist backlash.
Any sustainable response to the migration challenge will therefore have to proceed from the recognition that a considerable level of immigration will continue. In light of Europe’s prevailing demographic dynamics of low birthrates and aging populations, this trend also happens to be in the continent’s interest.
Efforts to better control the external border are necessary, but they will work only if illegal channels of migration are replaced by legal ones. The EU already has relevant instruments such as regional cooperation processes in the South and mobility partnerships with EU neighbors, but due to the restrictive approach of many EU governments, these tools currently lack the substance to be the bases of genuine partnership. Legal channels of migration and the direct resettlement of refugees from third countries, for instance through the granting of humanitarian visas, would be by far the best ways to fight the growing people-smuggling industry.
Through greater and better-targeted aid to transit states and countries of origin, the EU could also improve job and education prospects and thus ensure that there are more promising alternatives to moving to Europe. If the EU engaged more deeply and systematically with regional partners, it should be able to respond more rapidly to emerging crisis situations and prevent sudden destabilizing inflows of asylum seekers.
Internally, the EU faces a flawed Dublin Regulation—the rule that the responsibility for processing an asylum seeker’s claim lies with the first EU member state entered by that person. The EU should replace this setup with a fairer system of burden sharing. It will not be easy to convince reluctant countries to do their part, but Schengen in its current format cannot survive otherwise. Given the reluctance of member states to abandon ultimate control over the movement of people, a fully integrated asylum and immigration policy remains at best a long-term objective. But the EU needs to accelerate the step-by-step harmonization of national asylum and immigration policies. A restored Schengen system also needs much stronger and well-resourced common institutions.
All this is much more demanding than simply shutting people out. A great deal of political leadership would be required to regain public support for common European action. Unlike the tempting trap of Fortress Europe, such an approach might actually work in the longer term. But whether the EU in its current weakened state can pull itself together to embark on such a course of action remains to be seen.