The Refugee Crisis and EU Strategy

The EU has found itself unable to face a biblical immigration emergency, and is divided over what can be done to stop the Mediterranean from becoming a mass grave for desperate people fleeing war and poverty.

“Being moved to tears is not enough: we must act,” said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, commenting on the body of a three-year-old Syrian child on a Turkish beach, a distressing sight following the most recent in a series of drowning tragedies among migrants trying to reach Europe. The EU has found itself unable to face a biblical immigration emergency, and is divided over what can be done to stop the Mediterranean from becoming a mass grave for desperate people fleeing war and poverty.

The new EU member countries from Central and Eastern Europe are culturally and politically motivated to resist a binding mechanism to share the burden of a sudden flow of people perceived as “different,” arriving from other continents. As Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban bluntly put it, “We don’t want Muslims.” What is the crux of the matter: Is it about roots, religion or culture? After months of tit-for-tat tactics aimed at curbing the problem, it seems an economic, political, and therefore social issue, needing real leadership to be resolved.

In addition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to take the wheel of a runaway train with 28 carriages and 28 different sets of national interests in the face of the tragedy. Last Friday, the EU foreign ministers have met for a first roundtable on “what is to be done.” And what will be the result? There has been very little unity in the European club, enlarged in 2004 and 2007 on the basis of security concerns, in order to secure a wide and compact eastern border. So far, all it has shown is that East Europeans can be anything but supportive.

Four East European countries had meeting on the same day and there was little doubt that they would reaffirm their opposition to the proposal of binding migrant quotas to be distributed among all member-states. What does that mean? Paradoxically, Europe has a chance to grow into a more credible union based on the same principles. If Germany (once more the leader country), France and Italy are able to impose the idea of “equal obligations” as a moral imperative, then we could say that there was some meaning in this never-ending tragedy. The idea is to fix a number of migrants to be granted asylum in the EU, and the figure will exceed by four times the one that was agreed last June, when the emergency was most acute in southern Europe, with Italy and Greece at the front line.

Penalties and fines should be introduced for those countries that refuse to take in the agreed number of migrants. However, the problem runs deeper than “quotas;” its essence is with politicians – mediocrity seems to be a must these days to get growing approval rates – whose speeches and actions are based on national electoral implications rather than on willingness to improve the system and make it more viable for the future generations. Government officials like to make distinctions between refugees and economic migrants: the first are fine, the second are bad, but they forget that a refugee will always have to find a way to make a living.

At the same time, the EU allocates huge funds for surveillance and police actions, and very little for receiving migrants and transforming them into real citizens and resources for the member countries. And if we now have a civil war in Syria and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the growing flow of refugees from sub-Saharan nations is probably just the beginning of an epochal migration from the south to the north. According to the International Organization for Migration, climate change may force between 25 million and one billion people to migrate in the next 40 years.

So, the time to act is now or never. With its abolished internal borders under strain, the European Union is stumbling on the Schengen arrangement, and runs a serious risk of hitting the wall of its intrinsic limits and differences. What Europe needs even more than action at present is clear vision: action will follow. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.