Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
The refugee crisis is only one of three major crises that have engulfed Europe over the past few years—the other two being the Greek debt drama and Russian aggression toward Ukraine. Now, the three areas of political integration that the EU added to its single market core more than twenty years ago are in doubt: economic and monetary union (the eurozone); the Common Foreign and Security Policy; and the Schengen system of passport-free movement.
However, the influx of refugees and the resulting chaos in accommodating them isn’t merely the latest crisis but also one that directly touches the lives of EU citizens in nearly all member states in a way the other two have never done. Still, what all three crises have in common is that they go to the heart of state sovereignty. Taxes, armies, and residence—are EU member states willing to accept the principle of solidarity and, ultimately, supranational decisionmaking in these three key areas?
Therefore, taking the question literally, the refugee crisis might indeed destroy the EU as created by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and end the project of political union, with only the single market—the old European Community—remaining. However, there is hope, as ironically, it is European citizens—those ever EU-critical citizens—who have taken the initiative to help the refugees and thus reminded their own governments of the value of cooperation and compassion.
Immigration has long been a touchy issue in the EU. In fact, Europe needs immigrants to counterbalance its negative population growth rates. The problem is therefore not immigration as such, but rather that the crisis is showing the EU’s weaknesses and failures.
The West’s mighty foreign (and defense) policies have proved unable to replace war with democracy and human rights. Solidarity—for a long time a basic EU principle—is no more: the same countries that just two decades ago were the source of emigrants are now fighting immigrants with barbed wire, gas, and the army.
Most importantly, the EU is betraying its own founding values. The treatment that migrants received in recent days at the Hungarian border with Serbia is unacceptable and in sharp contrast with both the spirit and the letter of the EU’s founding treaty, adding to the long list of the Hungarian government’s deviations from democracy.
If the EU wants to survive, it needs to do three things. First, it must address the immediate problem of how and where to host the immigrants. Second, it must step up its foreign policy and seriously engage along the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. And third, it should use the procedure foreseen in Article 7 of the EU treaty to punish Hungary for breaching the EU’s values. The EU can only continue to exist as a community based on unassailable rights and unbreakable norms.
Today, Europe has a new crisis in its inbox to deal with—and some fear that this one is far more dangerous than the Greek debt saga, the financial meltdown, or the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. Now, Europe faces an unending wave of refugees.
Perhaps seeing a barbed wire fence go up along Hungary’s border with Serbia reminds Europeans of unpleasant memories more than twenty-five years ago before the Cold War ended. But these memories might also remind those same Europeans about what came after that period: an expanded, certainly changed, and clearly challenged European Union.
The current crisis can and will change and challenge Europeans again. It might also remind Europeans that they have the capacity, the resources, and the shared strategic interests to help shape solutions rather than revert to protecting themselves.
Despite the polemics of those Europeans who want to place blame on each other’s doorstep, it is war, persecution, and the brutality of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that have caused this crisis. It is the uncertainty caused by chaos that has forced millions of people to seek refuge.
Europe today, seventy years after its worst war in history, is itself evidence of the possibility of overcoming that fate. But to restore itself after the war, Europe had help from the United States. Today’s challenges will need the resources and the capabilities of both Europe and the United States.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has told her fellow Germans, “We can do it.” But they cannot do it alone any more than their forebearers could rebuild after World War II without aid. Europe as a whole must want to act—but it will take leadership. And Germany has to learn how to play that role.
It could, but it does not have to. EU leaders are scrambling to respond to the crisis, but they must be clear-eyed about the bigger picture.
The quota system to which EU interior ministers agreed on September 22 for relocating 120,000 refugees across Europe is a welcome first step. But the EU must also reform its asylum policy, currently based on the principle that the member state through which an asylum seeker first enters the EU is responsible for processing that person’s claim. And the union must set up safe, secure, and humanitarian processing centers in its neighborhood and go after the networks of people smugglers.
The foreign policy dimension of this crisis has been largely neglected. Europe’s leaders are overly focused on dealing with the symptoms—the large groups of migrants and refugees coming to Europe—rather than fighting the causes. A more durable solution surely lies in helping create the conditions that stop people from fleeing to Europe in the first place. If European leaders fail to dedicate serious time and resources to help put an end to the Syrian Civil War or to bring some stability to Libya, people will continue to vote with their feet to seek security or opportunity in Europe.
If EU leaders focus only on the symptoms, Europe should prepare for the numbers of migrants and refugees to swell—soon to be followed by a toxic anti-EU and anti-migrant backlash in Europe’s politics.
It is too early to adjudicate whether the current wave of migrants arriving in Europe will ultimately unravel the European Union, but it will certainly strain the union’s institutions like no other crisis to date. The deepening divisions over resettlement quotas are but the latest manifestation of the EU’s more fundamental structural problem: the lack of a mechanism to centrally manage the processing of asylum claims and to coordinate relocations.
Likewise, the EU lacks a common mechanism for securing the external borders of the Schengen passport-free zone, as there is no EU-empowered agency functionally equivalent to the interior ministries of member states. That shortcoming ensures that the current wave of migration will be followed by others so long as the borders are porous and Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa are on fire.
A key challenge for the EU is to reach forward into its Southern neighborhood. Thus far, the EU has not been very effective in stopping the boats from leaving, nor in going after the smugglers. To avoid being overwhelmed while it strives to process and resettle the migrants, the EU must stem the tide. In that regard, it will be critical to strike a deal with countries that currently hold the majority of the refugees, especially Turkey, to improve conditions in the camps, process applications in place, and bring some order.
So long as the EU’s response to the growing migration wave remains reactive, the problem will only deepen and further strain the EU’s institutions. And as the inflow of migrants continues to test individual countries’ absorption capacity, it will lead to deepening national divisions and a popular backlash.
Views expressed here are the author’s own.
I do not think the refugee crisis will destroy the EU as such, but its magnitude and speed present two distinct dangers for European integration.
The first danger concerns the Schengen Agreement, which created the EU’s passport-free travel area. The treaty may end up being the easy scapegoat of the crisis, especially in a context in which extreme right-wing parties are making gains across Europe. As an illustration, the Greek Golden Dawn party made advances in the September 20 parliamentary election, especially on the islands where most migrants land from Turkey. Similarly, the latest poll for the 2017 French presidential election shows a strong lead for the National Front, which is against Schengen.
The second danger is more pervasive. It is linked to the policy of several Central European countries of opting out of their shared responsibility in the refugee crisis. Hungary, which itself saw 200,000 people flee the country after the Soviet invasion in 1956, is behaving in a way that negates the notion of European solidarity in difficult circumstances. It also projects a shameful image on the rest of the EU, for example when Hungarian police at a refugee camp threw bread to migrants over a fence, something that is prohibited even in a zoo.
No. Instead, the refugee crisis is pushing the EU to set up new rules. That means a lot of negotiation. Some of it may look ugly. But that’s quite natural when so much is at stake. The question of borders and immigration is deeply controversial in almost all EU countries. It is a question of identity. Many people and political parties take a very strong, often negative stance driven by fear of the kind of change that may come with immigration.
The opposite position is no less principled and equally related to identity. Helping people who are fleeing a horrible war is for many a moral duty. In this view, fighting xenophobia and taking a cosmopolitan outlook that is open to foreigners is what Europeans should have learned from history.
A majority of Germans have taken the second position. Chancellor Angela Merkel has spontaneously connected with the country’s new culture of welcoming. As Germany is currently the decisive member state in the EU system, Berlin’s position has become a challenge for those countries that are rather skeptical of immigration. But at the end of the debate, there will be a compromise—as always.
The refugee crisis is the most serious challenge to the ideals of Europe—interdependence and openness—that has confronted the continent since the end of the European division in 1990. The crisis hits home in every member state, as it is not a faraway problem like the Greek debt saga or the war in eastern Ukraine but one that is visible on the streets in many EU countries.
The crisis has struck at a time when anti-immigrant feelings are already running high in many parts of Europe—fears that are being instrumentalized by politicians like the UK’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. It also risks splitting Europe both between North and South and between East and West.
That being said, the refugee crisis will not destroy the EU but is rather a sign of the attractiveness and, yes, compassion of Europeans. Germany is now forcefully taking the lead in pushing for a common European response, and Berlin’s threat of the use of its power in coercive ways is actually a positive sign that the country is taking the kind of leadership role that many have been calling for. For once, Germans understand that leading means you cannot always be loved.
But this tough-love approach remains within a European context. Europe will respond with a broad policy that will include helping frontline states, being tougher in processing asylum seekers, offering aid to resettlement centers in the states that border Syria, and, perhaps, introducing an arrangement to share quotas of refugees among member states. The forthcoming winter weather will also slow the flow of refugees and allow Europe to regroup. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the EU’s death are premature.
The refugee crisis will not destroy the EU but will certainly challenge the single market and the EU’s role in its neighborhood.
The free movement of people as well as goods, services, and capital is one of the fundamental pillars of the single market. Limitations on the free movement of people as a result of the refugee influx will make the EU less united than it used to be. The refugee crises is also a new test for burden sharing within the EU.
Moreover, the way the union chooses to deal with the refugee crisis will be a manifestation of its approach to its neighborhood. The European Neighborhood Policy, developed with the aim of building a ring of friends around Europe, has ended up with a ring of fire. In the absence of a comprehensive and realistic strategy to put out the fire, some member states are suggesting building fire walls around Europe. These walls would be emblematic of an EU that has chosen to turn inward rather than try to shape its neighborhood.
The refugee crisis will not destroy the EU, but it will probably change it. It is clear now that the EU’s open borders cannot work without a common immigration policy and joint responsibility for external frontiers. The current crisis is caused first and foremost by the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, but it also shows the weakness of the EU and the dominance of self-interest in the policies of member states.
The EU’s most vulnerable borders are the sea frontiers of Italy and Greece, and the overwhelming bulk of refugees and migrants reach the EU by this route. There is very little EU solidarity in securing these borders, so—unsurprisingly—both Italy and Greece are simply pushing the problem farther away by failing to register the refugees and often by actively helping them move north. Then, when the unregistered refugees reach Hungary and Budapest insists on registering them, this causes an uproar and allegations of inhumane behavior. And then, Germany’s invitation to refugees causes further escalation of migratory pressures.
Altogether, this is all big mess, and most likely, it will lead to a change in the EU’s border and immigration policies. The change could be positive—the crisis could encourage member states to invest in external borders and create a genuinely common policy. But it could be also negative—the crisis could unravel the Schengen Agreement and re-create EU-internal border controls. At this point, it’s not possible to predict which one of these two routes the EU will take.
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