Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why is Europe's approach to the refugee crisis so incoherent?

Why is Europe's approach to the refugee crisis so incoherent?
Published 22 Sep 2015 

Last Sunday saw another twist to the seemingly endless game EU governments are playing with each other over the refugee crisis. Germany abruptly decided to re-introduce border controls to curb the stream of migrants attracted to the country which has shown by far the most sympathy to refugees, the majority fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

This sudden shift by Germany, which completely changed the widely lauded position that Chancellor Merkel had originally taken (the Economist called Merkel's leadership a 'shining exception'), along with the failure by EU leaders to reach agreement after lengthy negotiations earlier in the week, might have left external observes baffled by the incoherent politics and policies of the EU. 

At the core of the crisis is the fact that the EU, according to UNHCR, faces an inflow via the 'Greek route' of 3000 refugees per day. So far this year, approximately 350,000 refugees have reached Europe. These refugees are mainly arriving in southern and eastern member states, leaving these countries to take the brunt of the political and economic hit. While EU politicians struggle to find fair ways to distribute the human and economic burden, the refugees are left at the mercy of various national law-enforcement agencies which, depending on the country and culture of the law-enforcers, can go from borderline starving the refugees in camps to helping parents carrying children to arrive safely in shelter-homes.

The figures look staggering, but when compared to the size of population of the EU, they are minuscule: 350,000 is only 0.08% of the total EU population. Compare that to the estimated 1.9 million refugees that Turkey alone is currently harbouring, which is about 2.2% of the Turkish population. Moreover, Turkey's nominal GDP per capita is about US$10,542 where the EU's average is US$34,300. The scattered, uncoordinated and sometimes contradictory responses by EU member states thus becomes even more baffling. 

The root of the conundrum lies in the constitutional and institutional set-up of the EU and in the cultural and historical heritage of its members. [fold]

The EU is constitutionally and hence institutionally a patchwork of what was politically possible at the time of various founding treaties. It is a case of forever balancing the desire (and sometimes the need) for more unified decision-making with the desire (and sometimes the need) for national sovereignty over specific issues. So, although the EU has a common set of rules for persons traveling inside the EU (the Schengen Agreement, of which only the UK, Ireland and Denmark opted out), the EU has no rules on how, at a community level, to handle refugees or immigrants to the Union. It does have FRONTEX, which helps member-state secure their exterior borders and coordinates border guard agencies, though it leaves member states 'of arrival' such as Italy, Greece and Hungary with the financial burden of border management, as well as the burden of handling incoming refugees or immigrants.  

The EU has no rules of common treasury, let alone rules of common economic burden-sharing, except for a scarcely respected set of 'rules' about budget-balancing and the procedural rule that almost any agreement that relies on national treasuries has to be unanimous. 

What we see in the EU with this refugee crisis is a set of political dynamics similar to those which played out in that other great European tragedy, the Greek debt crisis. They can be traced back to a number of larger tensions and trends facing the EU:

  • While much of the the 2008 financial crisis was global in nature, at first it was local in its solutions (eg. taxpayers in individual countries bailing out their financial sector). The crisis seemed to trigger a dangerous inertia in the EU, exacerbated by the constitutional demand for unanimity on economic issues.
  • The economic crisis strengthened an existing trend in Europe, namely an aging population fearing for its entitlements. Although the financial crisis affected European countries to varying degrees, the common denominator has been that European citizens have, with a few exceptions, crowded to political parties which promise to uphold these entitlements, whether they are economic or related to 'cultural heritage'. These moves to the extreme political right and left (or just towards nationalism) legitimises non-cooperation when it comes to issues where either the economy or (allegedly) the culture of member countries are up for debate.
  • As a consequence, domestic politics across the continent is marked by the rise of extremism. France's far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen recently said Germany's lenient migration policies are meant to recruit 'slave' labour; anti-immigration party UKIP is breathing down David Cameron's right front in the UK and elsewhere in Europe anti-immigration populist movements are a force to reckon with.
  • The crisis amplifies the already complicated interplay of inter-state relationships in the EU, which trigger both moral hazard (the attitude taken by those countries which refuse to take more refugees) and brinkmanship (ie. Germany's initial hope that its leadership by example would nudge reluctant countries into a more 'helpful' attitude). In an ironic twist, Germany is now the first country to put the EU's free-movement-of-persons principle on the line.
  • In theory, EU law trumps domestic law (even national constitutions), but EU law is much more fragile than it appears. Even if EU rules were clear and could be agreed upon, enforcement against member states by the European Commission via the European Court of Justice is burdensome, long and politically costly. It is therefore not a politically viable threat in tense negotiations.

If Europe's handling of the refugee crisis seems surprisingly amateurish from an outsider's perspective, it is unsurprising to an EU citizen. The migration issue is loaded with historical, national, constitutional and institutional problems. On the upside, there is recognition, led by Chancellor Merkel and supported by European Commission President Juncker, that this is a defining crisis for Europe, not merely from a domestic and interstate perspective but for Europe's relevance and credibility in the world. Since the very beginning of the EU, it has always found solutions to crises. The solutions are never pretty or easy to explain. They are never quickly delivered. But they have always been found, usually in late-night talks at the end of negotiations between presidents, prime ministers and chancellors. Tomorrow they will get another chance at the next EU Emergency summit.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Josh Zakary.

Related Content"

You may also be interested in