Another Fair-Weather Construction

The arrival in Europe of more than 1 million asylum seekers in 2015 unsettled the EU like no crisis before it. The EU’s current institutional and legislative arrangements were clearly not up to dealing with the huge influx of migrants, and the crisis laid bare deep divisions among the member states. Depending on the extent to which the EU can overcome these divisions and improve its policies, the refugee crisis could lead to either more Europe, less Europe, or the emergence of a new core of committed member states.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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Similar to the EU’s monetary union, the Schengen system of open borders turned out to be a fair-weather arrangement lacking the robustness to cope with crisis situations. In the face of a massive inflow of refugees, the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which assigns the responsibility for registering and processing asylum applications to the first Schengen country in which refugees arrive, proved unfair and ultimately unsustainable. Greece and Italy no longer fulfilled their obligations and allowed refugees to move on to wherever they wanted. This imposed an equally unsustainable burden on other member states, where most of the refugees ended up, primarily Germany, but also Sweden, Austria, the Benelux countries, and Finland.

The common institutions created to support the management of Schengen—namely Frontex, which works on border control, and the European Asylum Support Office—could do little to overcome the crisis, as they were neither empowered nor sufficiently funded to play more than auxiliary roles. And a solid legal foundation for harmonized immigration and asylum policies was sorely lacking, as member states had insisted on preserving much of their autonomy in this area.

Throughout 2015, the EU tried hard to come to grips with the crisis. Similar to the eurozone turmoil, the refugee influx quickly turned into a matter for the European Council, which brings together EU heads of state and government. While some discussions on this issue were contentious and unproductive, the EU made a number of significant decisions. These included a scheme for the relocation of 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other Schengen states, the establishment of processing centers (hot spots) on the EU’s external borders, a complex agreement with Turkey designed to curb the flow of refugees on the Western Balkan route, and commitments to better finance the UN programs supporting refugees in the Middle East. However, the implementation of most of these decisions made painfully slow progress, while at the same time the numbers of new arrivals kept going up.

In light of this collective weakness of the EU, member states increasingly resorted to individual actions such as reimposing border controls or building fences along their frontiers. Hungary received harsh criticism for first erecting fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia, but as the situation deteriorated, other countries followed suit. Some of this unilateral action occurred with little prior coordination, in a beggar-thy-neighbor manner, and resulted in additional tensions.

The lack of agreement among the 28 also prompted member states to organize themselves into groups. A minisummit in September 2015 brought together the most concerned EU member states and the Western Balkan countries. A coalition of the willing including Austria, the Benelux countries, Finland, Germany, Greece, and Sweden began to meet regularly to prepare EU gatherings but also held separate meetings with Turkey. The Dutch government briefly floated the idea of replacing Schengen with a “mini-Schengen” consisting of a smaller number of countries ready to accept a higher level of solidarity on migration issues. On the other side of the divide, the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) adopted common positions hostile to the relocation of refugees.

Why the EU Has Failed So Far

Overcoming differences of interests and viewpoints is one of the hallmarks of the EU’s success story over past decades. Why did the EU find this task so difficult in the case of the refugee challenge?

One important factor was the historical context. The crisis over Schengen came at a time when solidarity among the 28 was already at a low point. The eurozone instability had diminished the EU’s self-confidence and the mutual trust among its member states. The single currency’s slow economic recovery, the weak political leadership of the EU, and the rise of populist anti-EU parties in many member states resulted in a widespread sense of European malaise and a reassertion of national identities at the cost of support for EU integration.

Against this background, the new heads of EU institutions—Donald Tusk as president of the European Council and Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission—struggled to establish themselves as credible leaders when they entered office in late 2014. Juncker’s gloomy rhetoric about the “last chance Commission” and a union with “not enough Union” and Tusk’s repeated warnings about the impending breakdown of Schengen testified to the prevailing sense of anxiety at the top of the institutions.

In the absence of stronger guidance from the institutions, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel initially continued in the lead role she had assumed in the euro crisis. But the reservations in many capitals about German predominance were reinforced by the particular position of Germany in the refugee crisis. When it came to bailing out Greece or confronting Russia over its March 2014 annexation of Crimea, Germany, as the biggest and economically most powerful member state, was an essential part of any solution and thus capable of a leading role in shaping the EU’s response. But in the refugee crisis, Germany, with by far the largest number of asylum seekers, was the most affected member state and urgently demanded the solidarity of the rest of the EU. The fact that in the eyes of some other EU leaders the German chancellor had exacerbated the crisis through excessively welcoming gestures further complicated the situation. Not only was Berlin in the unusual situation of demanding rather than offering solidarity, it was also criticized for creating some of the burden that it wanted to share.

The asymmetrical impact of the crisis was itself a big obstacle to a strong and coherent collective response. Achieving solidarity in facing a common challenge can be difficult, but achieving it despite sharply diverging interests is a much harder task. Only a minority of EU countries were affected significantly by the refugee crisis, and these countries fell into three distinct groups. The states of first arrival were keen to overcome the constraints of the Dublin Regulation. The transit countries were tempted to divert the flow of migrants to other nations by selectively closing their borders and, if that was not possible, to pass the refugees along to the next country as rapidly as possible. The countries where most of the refugees ended up wished to slow down the inflow and called for EU-wide burden sharing.

Apart from the objective reality of member states’ uneven exposure to the problem, the crisis also revealed an enormous diversity in societal attitudes about migration. The largely globalized societies of Western and Northern Europe, which already hosted large immigrant communities, contrasted with the societies of Central Europe, which had lived in relative isolation over decades and were consequently much less prepared to deal with a large influx of foreigners. This was also reflected in Germany, where western Germany’s initial Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, clashed with a skeptical attitude in the regions of former East Germany. The moral imperative of welcoming and protecting refugees had strong popular support in particular in Sweden and Germany, whereas concerns about the risks and costs of rapid immigration dominated the public discourse in France and the UK. Xenophobic right-wing parties played a large role in some member states and hardly any in others.

A final reason for the difficulty the EU experienced in handling the refugee crisis lies simply in the enormous political sensitivity of the issue. The EU’s normal practice of defusing political problems through extended technocratic discussions does not work well with issues of great salience to the citizen. And migration certainly belongs to the hottest and most divisive topics on the political agenda. The main crisis managers—the prime ministers and presidents who derive their legitimacy from national elections—naturally approached the issue from the perspective of domestic politics. As most of the public discourse on this issue remained fragmented along national lines, the refugee crisis revealed once again the limitations of the EU as a space for a genuine transnational discussion of European concerns.

A Problem That Won’t Go Away

The EU’s failure to get a grip on the problem is even more serious because it is well understood that the inflow of refugees and migrants is likely to continue for years and probably decades. Despite renewed diplomatic efforts, there is little hope for an early end to the fighting in Syria. With some 4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey combined and over 7 million displaced people in Syria as of early 2016, many more are likely to attempt to come to Europe. A number of other Middle Eastern countries are facing acute security challenges that could give rise to new refugee flows. More and more Afghans are aiming to leave their increasingly unstable country. Growing migration pressure can also be expected from Africa, which according to UN forecasts will experience a doubling of its population by 2050. These demographic dynamics combined with the economic, political, and security challenges facing many African countries could lead to massive flows of refugees and migrants to Europe.

The growing Middle Eastern, Asian, and African diasporas in Europe will also attract further migration. The presence of relatives and friends in EU countries reduces the costs and risks of migration and exerts a significant pull effect. The growth of people-smuggling networks into a vast, wealthy, and sophisticated industry comparable with the drug trade will make illegal migration an even more formidable problem.

The likely high levels of immigration into the EU in coming years will bring both benefits and challenges. Many economists believe that in view of the low birthrates in the majority of EU countries, a large number of immigrants will be needed to preserve the potential for economic growth and ensure the long-term financing of European welfare systems. At the same time, overly rapid and uncontrolled inflows can overwhelm the host countries’ capacities to integrate the new arrivals, strain those countries’ social and educational services, and give rise to xenophobic and nationalist political backlashes.

For the EU, migration is thus likely to become the ultimate make-or-break issue. The current level of integration in the areas of freedom of movement, migration, and asylum is clearly insufficient to allow an effective collective response. The necessary strengthening of the EU’s policies and instruments will, however, be hindered by the union’s diversity of interests and of societal attitudes. And if a stronger and more integrated EU cannot be achieved, then the likely outcome is not stagnation but rather the fragmentation or even the loss of the existing level of integration. If the EU cannot deliver on securing its external borders and ensuring fairer burden sharing among member states, a progressive renationalization of migration policies will be unavoidable. So the migration challenge could result in one of three scenarios: a looser union, a regrouping of some member states in a smaller, hard-core Schengen, or a revival of integration in this field.

Scenario One: Toward an Ever-Looser Union

British Prime Minister David Cameron has asked for an opt-out from the long-standing EU treaty commitment of “creating an ever closer union.” If the current dynamics in the EU are not reversed, he need not have bothered. In fact, the EU might be rapidly moving toward an ever-looser union, in which trust and solidarity among member states are diminished and achievements of past decades are at risk.

The danger the EU is currently facing goes well beyond the survival of Schengen. The long-standing mantra that the EU undergoes many crises but always emerges stronger is losing plausibility. There have been many periods of high tensions and stagnation. But this is the first time that new challenges are driving the member states apart and the integration process could be thrown into reverse.

It is true that in confronting the euro crisis, the EU proved more resilient than many had expected. EU leaders agreed on substantial steps to reinforce the structures of monetary union, but this deepening of the eurozone was driven by the naked necessity to ensure the survival of the common currency. Once the pressure of the financial markets eased up, so did the momentum of the reform efforts.

The refugee crisis involves a different dynamic. Whereas the breakup of the euro would have triggered an economic catastrophe that had to be avoided even at the cost of unpopular austerity policies and steps toward greater centralization, the gradual disintegration of Schengen seems comparatively benign. There would certainly be economic costs and considerable inconvenience for travelers arising from reimposed border controls, but for the many citizens skeptical of the EU, this would be the lesser evil compared with giving up yet more sovereignty and accepting large numbers of refugees in the name of European solidarity.

It is therefore quite possible that turning Schengen into a more robust and integrated structure that can cope with continued high levels of migration flows would go beyond the capacity of the divided and weakened union of today. Instead, governments would individually try to curb flows of refugees and migrants through various types of restrictions and limitations. The suspensions of Schengen that several member states have introduced would continue and spread. As a result, the burden would shift back to the countries of first arrival, overstretching their administrative capacities and creating massive humanitarian hardship.

The tensions resulting from a chaotic breakdown of the Schengen arrangements would contaminate other areas of the EU. The UK’s continued membership in the union could become the most prominent collateral damage. To many UK citizens, the EU is of relatively limited salience, whereas migration tops many people’s concerns. In the in-or-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership that Cameron has promised by the end of 2017, a vote to remain will therefore be much more difficult to achieve if the ballot takes place against the background of the EU’s patent failure to deal with this challenge.

The departure of one of the big member states would be a devastating blow to the EU. But even if this calamity can be avoided, there is another impact of the refugee crisis that is already reshaping European politics. The crisis is sharpening the polarization of the EU’s political landscape between populists and mainstream parties—or, as France’s far-right National Front Leader Marine Le Pen has called it, between “patriots” and “globalists.” The situation varies from country to country, but in many member states movements on the populist Right and (more rarely) the populist Left are gaining ground at the expense of the traditional political establishment.

This polarization has many causes, including economic stagnation and fears of further globalization, but concern about migration is one of the main driving factors. The EU, which traditionally relies on the support of center-right and center-left mainstream parties, consequently becomes the target of most antiestablishment movements. If the political center is more and more hollowed out and increasing numbers of EU-critical politicians take office, the common ground among member states in terms of values and interests will shrink—and with it, countries’ capacity to act in solidarity with each other.

While inability to cope with the migration challenge will certainly weaken the EU, expectations that the bloc will suddenly fall apart like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia are not plausible. Its solid foundation on economic interests makes the EU’s internal market more resilient than many believe. Even nationalistic politicians rarely demand the introduction of new customs duties on intra-European trade.

However, the disregard for agreed decisions experienced during the refugee crisis is a worrying phenomenon. If this continues and spreads to other areas, the quality of the implementation of EU legislation will suffer, and various parts of EU policies and laws will gradually fall into obsolescence.

Unless a common response to the refugee crisis can be found, important projects for further integration, such as completing the monetary union, introducing an energy union, or devising a stronger common foreign policy, will get stuck. As a political force, the EU would be more and more marginalized as European states responded to challenges individually in the framework of coalitions of the willing or in other institutional settings. Like the Holy Roman Empire or the League of Nations, the EU’s institutional structure might survive for many years but with little political relevance and buy-in from member states.

Scenario Two: A New Hard Core

In mid-November 2015, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem floated the idea of a mini-Schengen consisting of Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. This never became a formal proposal and was probably meant primarily as a warning shot toward the countries in the South and East that were not abiding by the Schengen rules or were showing insufficient solidarity in taking in refugees. In the face of strong protests, every interested party, including the Dutch government, confirmed its preference for finding solutions within the current Schengen framework.

However, the idea did not go away entirely. A number of politicians continued to insist that only countries truly committed to solidarity and faithful to implementing the rules should have a place in Schengen.

The emergence of a coalition of the willing led by Germany and involving the countries named by the Dutch, as well as a few others, could prefigure further initiatives toward a smaller but more integrated zone of passport-free travel. In fact, if the efforts to overcome the crisis in the existing frameworks are failing, it is almost inevitable that a group of like-minded countries with compatible interests will get organized.

One curious feature of both the Dutch idea and the coalition of the willing was that they left out France. It is true that Paris takes a much more restrictive attitude toward refugees than Berlin and that France, traditionally protective of its sovereignty, might be reluctant to participate in the far-reaching integration of asylum and immigration policies that a mini-Schengen initiative could entail. At the same time, German-French partnership has always been at the heart of European integration, and the nonparticipation of France in a core EU grouping could probably happen only if France chose to opt out of such a group due to domestic politics or security considerations.

The new core group could come about as an ad hoc emergency arrangement. Eventually, it could follow the precedent of the original Schengen Agreement, which was concluded in 1985 outside the EU framework by just five countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) and was incorporated into EU law by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999. A new treaty drafted by a core group of states would include common rules for securing the mini-Schengen area’s external borders and for dealing with asylum and immigration issues. It would also provide for new common institutions to implement these policies.

Such a development could initially create as much disruption as the gradual disintegration of Schengen described in the ever-looser-union scenario. Most of the countries left out of the new core would resent and resist their exclusion, even though some political groupings would appreciate the recovered sovereignty on migration issues. The new divide between insiders and outsiders could severely hamper the functioning of the union.

However, unlike the wholly negative first scenario of failure and fragmentation, this second scenario involves the positive dynamic of a group of member states committed to finding a common solution to the refugee challenge. Over time, after the initial tensions were overcome, a new equilibrium would emerge. The core group would need the cooperation of the countries beyond the new zone’s external borders for managing migration flows, and in the longer term a number of additional countries would probably join the core group.

Scenario Three: Full Schengen Revived

The therapy for restoring the health of the Schengen system is not rocket science. In fact, it was already largely sketched out in the EU decisions and commission proposals of 2015.

Restoring confidence between the countries on the EU’s external borders and the states where most asylum seekers have ended up will be the key political challenge. The central trade-off would consist of ensuring effective control of external borders through renewed national efforts supported by an EU border and coast guard in exchange for a credible mechanism for sharing the burden of hosting refugees. The Dublin Regulation is certainly obsolete, but the notion that refugees can freely choose their state of asylum is equally unsustainable. A new arrangement would probably include a quota system for the distribution of asylum seekers across the EU and could also involve financial burden sharing. Stronger institutions and policies in this area would require considerable additional financial resources.

A fair burden-sharing arrangement would also have to include the Schengen countries that so far have very few asylum seekers, such as the Central European member states. Possibly only the threat of the hard-core scenario—limiting passport-free travel to a smaller group of member states committed to a higher level of solidarity—could finally persuade these countries to come on board. The risk of being relegated to an outer circle of member states and facing the costs and the inconvenience of border controls while others continued to enjoy the benefits of Schengen could be a powerful motive for reexamining the restrictive policies of today.

Intensive engagement with transit countries and the states from which migration flows originate will be crucial for regaining control over the inflow of people. Arrangements for processing asylum applications already in third countries and bringing successful applicants directly to Europe appear particularly promising. This would also be an effective way to counter the people-smuggling industry. Together with the countries concerned, the EU needs to develop robust policies for returning illegal migrants. This should be complemented by opening up well-managed channels for legal migration. In the longer term, a truly resilient space of passport-free travel has to be based on harmonized asylum and migration policies and supported by effective and well-resourced common institutions.

Whether the EU will be able to move in this direction and get a grip on the refugee challenge will depend on external and internal factors. Continued inflows at 2015 levels or even higher would probably overstretch the EU’s collective capacity to respond effectively. Member states would increasingly resort to restrictive national decisions, such as setting upper limits on the number of refugees allowed in, which would hinder the return to a functioning Schengen system. More manageable flows of asylum seekers would moderate the political explosiveness of the issue and make it easier to overcome the divisions between the member states. The shape of the European economy, political developments in and between member states, and the security situation, particularly regarding terrorist threats, would also play major roles in shaping the conditions for coping with the crisis.

No Alternative to Collective Efforts

The migration challenge is likely to continue for many years, even decades. The flows of people into the EU will go through fluctuations but will probably continue at a high level for the foreseeable future. As a consequence, Europe will undergo profound changes. So much is certain. But whether this process proceeds in a managed fashion with due regard to the interests both of the newcomers and of the current European population or takes place chaotically and disrupts Europe’s political and societal structures, this is clearly one of the most crucial questions for the future of the continent.

Irrespective of the survival or nonsurvival of the Schengen system, it appears highly implausible that uncoordinated action by each individual state will miraculously add up to a positive, comprehensive outcome. There is therefore no rational alternative to tackling this issue through collective efforts at the levels of the EU and of the Schengen members. Developing a credible overall strategy for responding to the migration challenge, creating appropriate instruments and mobilizing the necessary resources will require political will and sustained effort. If undertaken successfully, these common efforts could reenergize European integration and have positive spillover effects in other fields.

All this can only happen, however, if member states manage to overcome the divisions that have opened up in recent months and regain confidence in each other as well as in the EU’s collective capacity to confront this challenge. There can be no greater priority for 2016.

Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands for its financial support of this publication.