As migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean and 3,000 others remain stranded outside of Budapest’s train station, the brokenness of Europe’s immigration system is on full display. The Schengen Zone—Europe’s common border system—now seems to many Europeans to be not a blessing but a trap, while European leaders fight acrimoniously over various reform proposals that never seem to get anywhere. And each time one of these migrant-sharing proposals founders, the original problem intensifies, and countries of initial arrival are pushed more and more to their breaking point.
The Financial Times yesterday touched on one of the most important underlying problems: in migration policy as in other areas, like the euro crisis, the EU lacks the tools and the institutions to enforce its will (such as, in this case, an interior ministry). The paper quotes Guy Verhofstadt, who was once the prime minister of Belgium and now leads the European Parliament’s liberals: “Europe is a master of putting in place a policy and then not putting in rules and institutions absolutely necessary for these policies. Be it the euro or Schengen.” Both the euro and the Schengen system, that is, gave major traditional national competencies to Brussels, but they did so without creating the legal powers that make those institutions work on the national level.
European-wide governance was set up with the ultimate goal of “ever-closer Union”—i.e. full federalism—in mind, but the system’s architects knew that the nations involved were not yet ready to dissolve their countries into the larger whole. The elites’ solution was to paper over the fact that many of the needed legal and political foundations had not been laid down. They declared large goals accomplished, and assumed that, insofar as problems occurred, they would in and of themselves create political momentum to centralize more power in Brussels in order to fix whatever situations arose. During the 90s in particular—when the euro was proposed and Schengen was being implemented—there was a tendency to assume that “history” was heading inexorably in the post-national direction and would sweep away all petty impediments in its path.
The problem, as Europe is now seeing, is that the opposite can happen: Many of the crises have turned out to reinforce nationalist, rather than internationalist, tendencies. At its worst, this can take the form of Hungary’s drive to build a border fence or the growth of parties like the Swedish Democrats and France’s Front National. But it can also often take a different form: sensible centrist parties, such as the British Conservatives or the Polish Civic Platform party (PO), pointing out that the EU is making a hash of things and sounding skeptical about further integration. In practice, even the most ardently pro-integration states have started resorting to using national power to accomplish what Brussels can’t. The Greek euro crisis was eventually resolved (for now) when Angela Merkel intervened to take the reins from the Eurocrats who, supposedly, should have been benefitting from the crisis in the form of increased power and importance.
Much of the EU system’s popular appeal rested on the supposedly superior ability of disinterested technocrats to solve European problems. Now, even those who haven’t become more nationalist because of the current EU policy disputes or the immigration crisis have good reason to doubt Brussels’ ability to deal problems when they matter most. Europe badly needs to address not only its immediate migrant crisis, but to rethink its whole approach to making policy. It cannot continue announcing grand solutions first and building consensus and necessary institutions second.