EU Challenged: Dealing with the Refugees Crisis
Over the past decades, one of the hallmarks of the European Union’s success story was overcoming differences of interests and viewpoints, managing to develop within its diverse profile. Why did the EU find this task so difficult in the case of the refugee challenge?
The Schengen system of open borders, similar to EU’s monetary system, turned out to be an agreement that went well only because the overall environment was peaceful, lacking the robustness to cope with crisis situations. In the situation that emerged, 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, opening the European borders and allowing refugees to move on to wherever they wanted. This determined 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 historical context had much to do with the evolution of the refugees’ crisis, because the crisis over Schengen emerged at a time when solidarity among the 28 was a weakness, due to the Eurozone instability, that had diminished the EU’s self-confidence and the mutual trust among its member states.
Throughout 2015, the EU tried hard to manage successfully the crisis. The refugee influx escalated quickly into a matter of discussion for the European Council, which brings together EU heads of state and government. Although some discussions on this issue were unproductive and lead to no actual response to the crisis, the EU made a number of significant decisions. Some worth mentioning 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 and a complex agreement with Turkey designed to curb the flow of refugees on the Western Balkan route. However, one of EU’s weaknesses is the implementation part, most of these decisions making painfully slow progress, while at the same time the numbers of new arrivals kept going up.
Considering the collective weakness of the EU and the continuous refugee influx, the member states increasingly resorted to individual actions such as reimposing border controls or building fences along their frontiers. Although initially Hungary received harsh criticism for first erecting fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia, as the situation deteriorated, other countries followed its example as well, resulting in additional tensions.
The main institutions created to support the management of Schengen—namely Frontex, which works on border control, and the European Asylum Support Office—were able to do little to overcome the crisis, since their role was limited from a political or economic point of view, playing auxiliary roles. Also, a major difficulty was the lack of harmonized immigration and asylum policies that would have constituted as a solid legal foundation, so the member states had insisted on preserving much of their autonomy in this area, making the refugees crisis management even more troublesome.
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. This evolution managed to reinforce the reservations about German predominance by its particular position in the refugee crisis. Germany was the most affected EU member state considering the large number of asylum seekers, and urgently demanded the solidarity of the rest of the EU. Berlin was in a position of demanding rather than offering solidarity, being criticized for creating some of the burden that it wanted to share.
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. Only a minority of EU countries were affected significantly by the refugee crisis. 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. Germany received the highest number of new asylum applications, with more than 315,000 by the end of October 2015. Hungary moved into second place for asylum applications, as more migrants have tried to make the journey overland through Greece and the Western Balkans. It had 174,055 applications by the end of October.
Apart from the reaction of member states’ 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 for decades and were consequently much less prepared to deal with a large influx of foreigners.
The EU’s failure to response is even more serious, because the inflow of refugees and migrants is likely to continue for years and probably decades. There is little hope for an early end to the fighting in Syria, despite the diplomatic efforts. A number of other Middle Eastern countries are facing acute security challenges that could give rise to new refugee flows. Growing migration pressure can also be expected from Africa, which according to UN forecasts will experience a doubling of its population by 2050.
The likely high levels of immigration into the EU in coming years will bring both benefits and challenges. Considering the low birthrates trend 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, rapid and uncontrolled inflows of refugees 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.
Political will and sustained efforts will be needed in order to develop a credible overall strategy for responding to the migration challenge, creating appropriate instruments and mobilizing the necessary resources. All this can only happen 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.