Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Flood of human misery a challenge to free travel and other European ideals

Flood of human misery a challenge to free travel and other European ideals
Published 12 Jan 2016 

The hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Europe have prompted big changes on the borders of some European countries, and put huge pressure on the liberties implicit in the passport-free travel zone stretching across 26 nations.

As a result of failed and failing states in the Middle East and in Africa, more than one million migrants entered Europe in 2015, many more than in any previous year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Some are bona fide asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some are refugees held in camps and transit countries at Europe’s periphery, and others are economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, from the Maghreb countries and the edge of the Balkan.

All of them hope for a new, better life in Europe, especially Northern Europe. Yet they have absolutely no idea of what life is like in their imagined promised land. Almost all come from regions of the world about as different as imaginable from any European country. Almost all are Muslims, many from deeply conservative and rural areas in their home countries. A majority are young men, with insufficient professional skills due to the catastrophic failure of education in many Islamic countries, and who have only experienced feudalistic and male-dominated societies.

The challenge of settlement, let alone integration is bigger than any any faced to date by countries who have traditionally received the ‘huddled masses’. These, though often wretched, shared important values and experiences with those already living in their new home. Not so now in Europe. The New Year Eve's incidents around the main train station of Cologne, where hundreds of females were molested and mugged, with asylum seekers among the suspects, both highlighted the culture gap and gave hardline political parties more ammunition to rally against migration.

But what to do? [fold]

Europe is not an isolated continent surrounded by vast oceans but one that is easily reached by land and water, making secure borders physically difficult. And within Europe, there are 26 countries in the Schengen Area that have no passport or other controls on common, or internal borders. The EU, even less Schengen, is not a country with centralised lines of command in all areas of vital importance. The existing European border police (Frontex) coordinates and counsels but has so far lacked the authority to become active on the Schengen border.

That will probably change. The EU-Commission has drawn up proposals to the member states to create an independent force to start policing the external border in a somewhat uniform way. Reluctant states in the South and East are likely to eventually comply; the common EU-budget can be persuasive, especially for states that are net receivers

Some nations have already acted. For the first time in 50 years, those travelling between Denmark and Sweden are now required to provide identification. However a turn to border controls by each country is not a realistic alternative. First because the migrants will come anyway, as long as the drivers in their countries of origin continue. Second, Schengen is only one, albeit crucial, part of unfettered commercial and human interaction under the four European freedoms (goods, capital, services, people). The respective trans-border value chains have become part of a European reality few want to forgo.

The random identity checks at the border that have lately been instituted by Northern European countries are thus likely to be temporary, and are indeed allowed under Schengen rules. At this time they cannot be interpreted as a real threat to the European construction; that would require fundamental political change in a majority of EU-countries.

Of course, there are nationalist and extremist hardliners pushing for such a change with mostly right wing policies promising to bring back ‘the good old times’. Given experience with the latter have been historically disastrous for a majority of countries and people in Europe, the resonance of such appeals is doubtful, at least in those countries where a democratic order has been in place for almost 75 years.

It is not a coincidence that the two countries where a majority have recently voted for policies of the past are still heavily burdened by what Anne Appelbaum has called ‘the legacy of a totalitarian past’. The internal political trajectories of Hungary and Poland will show whether the nationalistic and authoritarian right will succeed in its march forward to the European past.

An important opportunity to assess the collateral damage of the migration crisis on the seminal achievement of the European construction will be the ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK, likely to take place this coming summer. Granted, the historical background is very different from Eastern Europe. Yet that vote will be nothing short of a fundamental decision on the future course of the country. As Great Britain always was, and still is, a vital part of Europe, the outcome will weigh heavily on Europe, too.

If the migrant summer of 2016 becomes as bad as that of 2015, there is a danger the severe but passing collateral damage sustained to date will become frontal and fundamental.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Josh Zakary

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