Refugee crisis: What does this mean for the EU’s future?

We are witnessing a heated debates and divisions in the EU re migrant crisis. In your opinion, what do the current situation tell us about the EU, maybe also about the future of the EU? Read few comments.

Aristotle Kallis, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Lancaster University

As the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said, the ongoing refugee crisis will define the EU – for what it stands, for how effectively it can respond to a crisis, for its powers of cooperation and its commitment to universal human rights.

As the situation is fast evolving, it is perhaps hard to make safe predictions about what will happen. The picture so far is mixed. On the one hand, there have been moving scenes in reception cities across Europe, with ordinary people going out of their way to welcome refugees, provide them with basic goods, and above all make them feel welcome. Numerous city authorities have also responded admirably, repurposing facilities as reception centres and directing generous funds to the hosting of the arriving people. In addition, I would like to single out the German government for taking a decisive lead on this matter. In times when immigration has become such a taboo issue and anti-immigrant feeling is very much at the heart of mainstream politics and society, it is encouraging to hear politicians adopt open door policies, make such a positive humanitarian case, and push forward sensitive measures on the EU level. But thousands of people as well let it be known that, when faced with such extraordinary human suffering, difficult decisions have to be made and societies need to get out of their comfort zone.
On the other hand, governments are known to pander to their public opinions, whether because they essentially believe that immigration is a huge problem that they would rather let others deal with or because they fear about re-election. A number of EU countries have taken a pusillanimous, not-in-my-back-yard kind of view. I have some sympathy with a few of the concerns that underpin this stance. Such a huge crisis does raise questions as to what happens with the refugees after the cosy short spell of arrival gives way to pressure on authorities for caring for them, helping them feel part of the host society etc. In the echo of a painful worldwide crisis, many European societies are still reeling from the effects of falling living standards and savage austerity cuts that have affected services and wages. And what will happen if, if more and more refugees make the desperate, perilous journey to Europe? This is why an EU-wide approach, based on cooperation, sharing of resources, and yes, all-round sacrifices is needed. The problem is bigger than any individual state. It is much bigger than the EU itself. It is not even a European problem per se; it is a global, humanitarian problem. The time of bold decisions, the kind of decisions that helped reconstruct and reframe what we collectively stand for, is now desperately needed.

But … there is a big but. The kinds of arguments used by some countries – not accepting Muslims because Europe is a ‘Christian’ continent, giving priority to Christians, not sharing the responsibility because of ‘over-crowding’ or lack of resources – are laughable, derisory, and dangerous. They play the tune of radical right parties and foster what is already a strong anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim mainstream prejudice across large segments of European societies. They show a blatant hypocrisy because human rights, the alleged cornerstone of western policy, are not a pick-and-mix affair, do not apply only when we want them to apply and are derogates when it may cost us money or sacrifices. Hungary has to be singled out here for taking the most morally dubious approach, resorting to both inflammatory discriminatory comments and measures that foster a deeper fortress mentality (literally in this case, with the barb wire fence on the border with Serbia and another planned in relation to the border with Croatia). Spain, meanwhile, complains that, amidst the refugees may be Daesh radicals – an argument that, though not impossible, makes a mockery of any kind of conceivable commitment to human rights and smacks of an excuse mentality. Meanwhile, Poland and the UK are taking a rather unhelpful approach, limiting numbers that they can accept, fighting the idea of an EU quota and so on.
I think that the EU, as an institution, has done a fair bit of work – belatedly perhaps , as this should have happened weeks, even months ago, but better late than never. The European Commission is showing a laudable degree of determination, recognising the severity of the crisis but also the crucial – real and deeply symbolic – test that it represents for the EU. With Germany and France taking an active lead on this front, the EU seems to be on the right track.

Regrettably, it is once again member states that are falling well short of expectations or their moral duty. The fact that Britain faces a difficult referendum about exit from the EU in 2016 is no excuse for any British PM not to make the humanitarian case to their public. As I write these lines, it seems that a trademark EU compromise solution that will deliver a tangible agreement on the quota system is possible in the coming hours/days. But this has not happened without grudges, misgivings, and unacceptable comments, and only after pressure from outside. Like every other inter-national organisation, the EU cannot be much more than the sum of its parts, in this case its own member states. If they are failing in their humanitarian duty and moral compass, if they fail to make the case to their electorate, if they pander to the anti-immigration, xenophobic forces within their societies without putting up a fight, then the margins for EU action become severely limited.

Lastly, the ongoing refugee crisis underlines another truth that may be anathema to those opposed to European and international collaboration. These crises require concerted action, as well as a sense of collective responsibility. If refugees are flooding into Calais, then this is an issue for Calais and France, but also for Britain (just across the sea), and many other countries. This is not an EU crisis, as I said. It is a European, indeed global crisis. The EU can set the example for effective collective action that is both driven by moral principles and rooted in pragmatic considerations that guarantee the interests of ALL involved (refugees and host societies). If it fails, this may be a catastrophic failure for the institution, for European cooperation, and the future of the European project itself – but above all it would be a calamitous failure of European states and societies. This is a scenario that I would rather not fathom at this stage.

Carolin RügerProfessur für Europaforschung und Internationale Beziehungen, Institut für Politikwissenschaft und Soziologie, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

We can learn a lot from the refugee crisis about the EU in general. Important issues regarding human rights, fundamental freedoms, solidarity or national interest quickly come to one’s mind.

I want to highlight a different (and compared to the tragic situation of many people certainly secondary, but not unimportant) point: Once more – like in the case of the sovereign debt crisis-, the refugee crisis is an EU topic not only debated by political elites but reaching out to the broader public. This can be witnessed in numerous citizens’ initiatives as well as in social media posts or letters to newspaper editors. Moreover, the discussion about the refugee crisis is perceived and debated as a European problem (!). German media, for example, refer to politicians or other voices in other EU member states. Voilà: There it is the European public sphere that is often looked and longed for.

What else can we learn from discussions about the refugee crisis? Many citizens (and politicians) still have problems when talking about responsibilities in EU politics. The refugee crisis is perceived as a problem of “the EU”. And for many people the EU means Brussels/the European Commission/the European Parliament. It is often overseen that the real makers and shakers of EU asylum policy and many other EU policies do not sit in Brussels, but in the national capitals.

Roman GerodimosSenior Lecturer in Global Current Affairs, The Media School, Bournemouth University

This crisis is a both an immense challenge and an opportunity for the European Union. Many are very critical of how the EU has handled this crisis and it true that, even now, when the entire world’s attention is on us, the response of national governments and of the EU’s main institutions is not fast and radical enough. However, we should also remember that hundreds of thousands of refugees have been fleeing to Europe over the last few years – especially this year. Several other countries (with the marked exception of Lebanon) have done little to take their share of responsibility for the geopolitical situation and to respond to the humanitarian crisis. Countries such as Greece and Italy are stretched to the limit and are unable to address not just the number of refugees but especially the manner through which these are smuggled or are forced to attempt to cross into Europe. The EU has been so consumed with the debt crisis over the last few years, one gets the sense that this has detracted from other discussions about the strengthening of EU institutions and decision-making processes, especially in times of crisis such as this.

Over the last few days we have seen an unprecedented level of civic mobilisation and humanitarian concern by people across Europe. There is a lot of political capital for radical decisions and effective action right now and EU leaders should not let this opportunity pass. Only through further integration, sharing of responsibility across the Union and mobilisation of citizens (so that they become participants and stakeholders in the consolidation of the EU) can we move forward.

Doreen Allerkamp, Post-Doc Researcher, Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), University of Mannheim

In my view, the refugee challenge underlines that “Europe” or “European Union”, if you wish, is a work in progress. It’s a political project that is perpetually evolving, and quite possibly will never be finished, because there will always be some issue or other on the agenda on which a compromise will have to be negotiated and then implemented. A compromise or compromises which will inevitably have institutional consequences as well as repercussions for the self-perception of Europeans.

Thus, dealing with refugees, just like dealing with debts, or poverty, or climate change, is just another item of business for the EU. Like some aspects of the Greek crisis, it can get emotional at times, especially when the press does not have enough other things to report on (no slight intended :)), or some politicians or political movements seek to capitalise on it politically. The EU is perfectly equipped to handle the refugees, like most other challenges. It is simply a matter of political will, which in turn depends on the compromise that must be negotiated in the decisive forum, the Council(s). This compromise will emerge inevitably, and it will be messy and costly and unsatisfactory in many ways, but that is the nature of doing business incorporating so many peers.

People talk about Europe or the EU as a Community of shared values, but much of these are rather broad and unspecified and can mean whatever is politically convenient, or else not exclusive to Europe. Indeed, there are very few values that are exclusive to anyone or anything, that is, to any person, country, region or religion, for example. So that is not much use.

It’s almost a cliche by now, but it is a matter of historical fact that the EU has always grown, and continues to grow, though the challenges it faces.

Paulo Vila MaiorAssistant Professor, the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, University Fernando Pessoa

The current migration crisis brings to the surface the seeds of disunity that have and will always be a stepping-stone of European integration. One issue is substantive (how should the EU and its member states deal with the crisis) and another is ontological (the prospects of European integration in so much as this crisis might affect the future outcome of the EU).
Firstly, the exodus of Syrian refugees triggered a psychological effect that was not so pronounced when, as before, sub-Saharian migrants were dying on the Mediterranean sea. Maybe this is instructive of something which, nevertheless, has no direct relationship with the way the EU and member states are reacting to the migrant crisis. To put it differently, the psychological reaction, with an overall favourable input to the Syrian refugees influx, raises important issues to be discussed to the extent that people were more touched with these refugees’ drama than with the thousands who already died in the Mediterranean sea.

Secondly, it is revealing that national reactions are diverse. For sceptics of European integration such divisions about the almost unconditional assimilation of refugees is a further reason of distress for the EU. I do not follow such approach. Different perspectives are acceptable, grounded as they are on the recognition that the issue falls, to a large extent, within national powers. Thus, divisions here are not a synonymous of another input to the existential crisis of the EU. The focus is not on the EU, but on why national governments’ reactions are diverse.

Thirdly, one might content whether this is not the opportunity to bring this issue to the catalogue of powers of the EU. Considering the tragic dimension of the whole migrant crisis (not only the refugees coming from Syria, but all migrants coming from everywhere), and the likelihood that the effects of the crisis cross over the capacity of individual national governments to handle it, all conditions gather for a supranational reaction. I ask whether this is an opportunity for more Europe. And, if that is the case, this episode corroborates the fate of European integration developments: path dependence and the opportunity of rising circumstances make the case for a reinforcement of EU’s powers.

Fourthly, and finally, national governments’ reactions are straightforward. Germany, together with France and Italy, lead the plea for a generous decision regarding the surge of refugees coming from Syria. Many Eastern EU governments pose obstacles to the idea of welcoming these refugees, with the reaction of the Hungarian government as hitting the heights of intolerance, which is not consistent with the values of the EU. Maybe surprisingly (notably for Merkel’s critics), Germany took the lead when it comes to an unconditional acceptance of these refugees. This is an evidence of political leadership that was absent (if viewed from a constructive approach) in the Eurozone crisis. It remains to be seen whether this episode of political leadership will be constrained at the national level or whether it will feed political willingness at the EU level. If the former is the outcome, the EU will have its momentum triggered by an initiative of key national governments. In other words, business as always when European integration developments are recast.

Vihar GeorgievAssociate Professor, European Studies Department, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski

This is a real European crisis. It is inherently geopolitical and therefore will pose a substantial threat to the whole European integration model. The crisis tells us that the Schengen institutional framework is inadequate for meeting the challenge of the significant migrational wave that is coming to European shores. As I wrote back in 2010, the following urgent policy measures should be implemented:

Creation of crisis response border management plans
Development of a comprehensive border technology road map
Integration of planning and coordination among border security entities in the EU
Coordination and alignment of border security with other EU policies (asylum, immigration, police cooperation, foreign policy, etc.)
Measures to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights

Stefan Lehne, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe

The current situation represents one of the biggest tests of solidarity among EU member states. The Schengen system is one of the historic achievements of the EU. It can only be saved, if member states harmonize their policies of asylum and migration and if they agree on a fair burden sharing system. If this does not happen, Schengen will be lost, which would be a devastating setback to European integration.

Frank HägeLecturer in Politics, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

The only thing these debates possibly demonstrates again is that in a Union of 28 member states with very different historical experiences, levels of economic development, perceptions of national interests, and ideas about what the EU is or should be about, timely and effective decision-making is becoming increasingly difficult.


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