The European Union is fast approaching a moment of decision: It must either take the necessary steps to get a handle on migration flows, or its very institutions will grind down amidst national finger pointing and imploding public trust. The public wave of anger following the assaults on women in Cologne during the New Year’s celebration is the symptom of ratcheting tension. If Europe suffers another terrorist attack linked to the current wave of migration from MENA, the public outrage and mistrust of elites will only grow. And joining the wave of migrants from the south is a trickle from new entry points in the east. The target countries for these flows remains predominantly Germany and Sweden for now, though this is likely to change. The numbers are daunting: Even now, in the midst of the winter lull, 2,000 migrants are entering Europe each day, with Greece alone having taken another 30,000 in January. The projected “spring surge” in March/April may bring numbers exceeding last year’s figures.
As a result of these staggering numbers, the migration crisis has now pushed beyond the boundaries of political correctness, or any talk about multiculturalism, parallel societies in a future Europe, or the Willkommenskultur that has traditionally defined the Western European approach. Tougher limits on German asylum policy, as put forth by Angela Merkel, and current efforts to develop an EU border force will not suffice. Clinging to the notion that the open flow of people across borders in Europe can somehow be maintained even as individual states like Greece fail to live up to their commitments to secure their borders only further undercuts the Schengen project.
The need to close the EU’s external borders is about more than just preserving the freedom to travel across national borders. Schengen is already on life support, since states have de facto reestablished state border monitoring. Another deepening problem is Europe’s absorption capacity. Immigration into Germany is at a twenty-year high, and the core issue is not just the absolute numbers of people coming into the country (or other European countries for that matter) but rather the speed with which those thousands are pouring in. The current wave is compromising the ability of state institutions to process and provide services to the newcomers, and the rate at which they enter all but ensures that new arrivals will not be acculturated. The attendant societal stresses have allowed the public backlash to grow unabated, deepening Left-Right political divisions and fueling extremism. The net result is the further renationalization of European politics: the very phenomenon the EU project aimed to diminish.
The migration crisis has moved the “virtualization of state sovereignty” in Europe from the internal to the external dimension, focusing attention on the border security functions of the state. The deficit in those functions is now plain for all to see: Europe, unable to offload state security functions onto all-European institutions, is now faced with the prospect that national-level responses will dominate as the crisis continues, further fragmenting the EU’s already strained institutions. This is not an issue of legal vs. illegal immigration; rather, the question is whether, in effect, the current policy has swept such distinctions aside altogether and mainstreamed what can be called “fait accompli immigration.”
There is a larger security dimension to the migration crisis that augurs poorly for Europe’s ability to confront Russian aggression along its eastern periphery. An already visible side effect of the EU’s inability to secure its external borders is the deepening fissure between the older EU members and the former communist states in central and southeastern Europe, especially the hardening position on the resettlement of migrants by the Visegrad Four (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary). This “quid-pro-quo” dimension of the intra-EU debate over resettlement quotas across Europe is fueling the crisis and leaving the EU ever more internally fragmented. More so than debates over Russia sanctions or the Greek collapse, it is the issue of MENA migration into Europe that is shaking the European Union project to its foundations. Today the de facto policy of open and unrestricted immigration, initially championed by the Merkel government, has widened a gap between Europe’s elites and its publics, deepened divisions across the regions, and polarized societies to an extent that is unlikely to be overcome soon.
European publics are rebelling against transnational elites who are engaged in what they see as sleight of hand: preaching acceptance, tolerance, and relativism, only to shrug their shoulders when the result is not acculturation but rather the emergence of more parallel communities. It aggravates the situation further that European governments lack the necessary data to distinguish those who can legitimately claim refugee status from economic migrants seeking work, ISIL terrorists, or simply those who for whatever reason are seizing the opportunity to migrate to a more affluent part of the world. The most injurious aspect of the criminality and growing violence against women in Europe is that it deepens the perception—now morphing into a conviction—that governments are failing in their most basic responsibilities toward their societies: namely, providing for security.
Slowing down the migration flow into Europe to a level where the entrants can be processed, deported, or resettled is key if the EU is to get a handle on the situation. This will require the reform of EU law, as well as close cooperation with transit countries like Jordan and Turkey. Most of all, it will require securing Europe’s borders, even if it means ejecting from Schengen countries like Greece that have routinely failed to fulfill their obligations. A partial answer to the question of what needs to be done, however unpalatable it may be to Europe’s elites, can in fact be seen along the Spanish-Moroccan border, where, starting in 1998 and augmented in 2005, the Spanish government (with EU financial assistance) built a system of three fences twenty-feet high, monitored 24 hours a day by Moroccan soldiers on one side and the Spanish Guardia Civil on the other, creating a barrier against illegal migration. This is not a perfect system; there are no perfect solutions, and Spain has also experienced a jump in illegal migration with the current wave. But on balance, when it comes to slowing down the flow, the Spanish system has worked better than elsewhere. Other countries in Europe need to physically secure the external borders in order to slow down the rate of immigration and to allow time for adjusting the law and more effective processing.
The urgent question of how immigration into Europe will be managed does not fall neatly along liberal-conservative lines, where most arguments unfortunately have played out thus far. Rather, it is about the future of the European project and the preservation of the fundamentals of normative and social cohesion, which have been the sine qua non of the European unification project since its inception. The notion that the current approach to this migration wave can continue into the spring, against gathering public opposition, is a fatuous myth that endangers the future of the European Union.