Gut-wrenching images of human suffering, despair, and determination as thousands from the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond scramble to reach the prosperous core of the European Union have sparked a debate about fundamental human rights, compassion, and European solidarity in burden-sharing. They have also fuelled another potential institutional crisis in the EU—as though the recent contortions over Grexit and the Eurozone crisis were not enough. This time the crisis is over one of Europe’s most cherished icons: the Schengen visa-free/passport-free zone, which has given the European project arguably its strongest evidence yet that a larger and ultimately “pan-European” community would emerge from the nation-states bound by the treaty and the ideals behind it.
The current wave is fast invalidating all earlier numerical projections: Germany is looking at about 800,000 asylum applications this year; in July alone more than 100,000 people entered Europe, mainly through Greece and Italy. Reportedly, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will now call for the member countries to resettle the 160,000 people who have reached Greece, Italy, and Hungary—a fourfold increase relative to two months ago. This is the “Schengen wave” of immigration; now reaching the point of entry places one within striking distance of Europe’s interior.
The size and distribution of the resettlement quota within the EU has become an intra-family squabble, with Britain resisting and Germany and Italy asking for higher quota commitments from other countries, especially from the reluctant “new members.” Here Hungary has led the way in its opposition to the plan, building a barbed wire fence along the Serbian border and pushing enabling legislation through the parliament that would reassert national control. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has called the immigration wave a “German problem.”
So it now will come to this: Germany’s Angela Merkel will insist that increasing resettlement quotas for all is inevitable, making it a litmus test of intra-EU solidarity. If she gets her way—and she likely will next week—Greece, Italy, and Hungary will be allowed to dispatch the migrants from their territory to other countries, establishing an ad hoc quota policy of sorts. Problem solved? Not so fast, as another deal on the resettlement quota will not alter the overall migration dynamic or momentum, with push and pull factors (war in MENA and Europe’s generous social support and prospect of a better life) now mutually reinforcing and locked in. And in a world framed by instant communications and social media, the message of Europe’s promise will continue to go out to the desperate and the entrepreneurial thousands, reinforcing their determination to come.
The reluctance to accept more immigrants for resettlement is fast becoming a pan-European problem. The reaction of the European citizenry to the current immigrant wave has oscillated between compassion and assistance on the one hand, and resentment and anger on the other. There are indications that public attitudes on immigration in Europe are hardening. The changes in public opinion are testing whether Europe can manage the current crisis and devise a longer-term solution from under the European Union umbrella, or whether national policies will increasingly drive the process. The jury is still out on public opinion, but “immigration fatigue” is increasingly a factor. In Sweden the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are in the lead as of last month’s polling. In Britain 47 percent of the population doesn’t want to welcome people fleeing from Syria and the Middle East, and 42 percent oppose offering refuge for anyone. Attacks on migrants have risen, with the largest numbers in Germany, where the interior ministry has recorded 336 assaults on refugee shelters since the start of the year—more than a hundred above the total in 2014—with close to half of those in Germany’s east.
But arguably the greatest and truly structural problem in the current crisis is how it impacts the future of Schengen and Europe’s open internal borders. Since its inception, Schengen has offered common borders but not a common mechanism for securing those borders, with no EU empowered interior agency functionally equivalent to the interior ministries of member-states. Schengen lacks the mechanism to centrally manage the process of asylum claims and to manage relocations. This deficiency was recently highlighted by Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister and leader of the European Parliament’s liberal group, when he charged that, as with the euro crisis, Schengen lacks adequate rules and institutions necessary to implement the policy. Efforts to beef up Frontex, Europe’s border agency, have done little to stop routine breaches of asylum laws and procedures. Hence, the waves of migrants are almost literally pushing the states out their way, raising the most basic question about whether the EU can in effect control its borders. To appreciate how helpless individual governments have become, one need only watch footage of migrants storming trains, blocking rails, cutting through the concertina wire on the Hungarian border as they scuff with the police.
As waves of migrants crash on Europe’s shores, the conversation has been focused on aid, processing, and resettlement, with few ideas as of yet about how to actually enforce the EU’s borders and stop the flow at the source. And yet without effective border controls one cannot devise a workable resettlement quota system. As a result, Europe is now saddled with a serious and rapidly growing security problem: the lack of adequate background screening of the people now entering the EU, with even medical protocols enforced only haphazardly. Europe’s response to the current wave of migration from MENA has thus far been predominantly focused on dealing with the immediate consequences. There is yet to be a coordinated law enforcement cum military response. The latter is especially important as the Europeans need to go to the source of the problem, stopping the boats from leaving and going after the smugglers and their enablers.
Europe has been through several waves of migration, initially driven by labor migrants, then including asylum seekers, refugees, and family reunification. The current post-World War II “Schengen wave” of refugees and migrants is reaching the European Union at a time when its significantly expanded common institutions are especially vulnerable due to the lack of sufficient organizational infrastructure and procedures to support them. Unless the external Schengen border is secured and institutional structures put in place to properly manage and vet asylum claims, taking in what could be a million migrants this year poses a serious risk that the border free internal zone, one of Europe’s most prized achievements, could become a victim of this crisis.