Is Europe under siege? Maybe not. But the ongoing European migration crisis has reinforced pre-existing centripetal forces generated by serious economic imbalances in the European Union (EU), especially in the financially fragile states at the EU’s external borders. Unless all twenty-eight states of the EU agree to harmonize their approach and resource commitments to border security, asylum laws, and equitable distribution of the migration burden, fragmentation and growing disunity will cause serious damage to European integration.
In recent years, Europe has become a destination for masses of people trying to escape war, political turmoil, and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During 2015-2016, nearly one million migrants and refugees passed through Greece’s Aegean islands and mainland toward central and northern Europe. Over the last four years, upwards of 3.5 million people have applied for asylum in the EU’s twenty-eight member states. While migration flows have decreased, the number of illegal crossings into EU territory, mainly through the sea routes, exceeded 150,000 in 2018.
On paper, these numbers appear manageable for a continent of 500 million inhabitants. Yet, the influx of uninvited people from distant lands and foreign cultures has generated new social, political, and economic pressures in a continent still recuperating from the financial shocks of the Great Recession. The migration crisis has destabilized the political economy of EU countries, especially those near or at its external borders. Regions and communities in frontline states, like Greece and Italy, have been overwhelmed by the asymmetric burden the migration crisis; in these areas, it feels like Europe is indeed under siege. Hence, a clear divide has formed between frontline states in the European south and east and those in central and northern Europe. This divide is eroding the consensus for solidarity, a key pillar of European integration. The rise of nationalist parties across Europe is a symptom of mounting dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Politics, policies, and geography have contributed to these developments. EU decision-makers were caught unprepared to deal with chaotic migration in a concerted fashion. Policy paralysis was overtaken by German Chancellor Merkel’s open-door policy, a major pull factor to migrants and refugees. But this policy relied on the geography of Greece’s Aegean archipelago and mainland, transforming them to buffers in transit routes north. During the peak of the migration crisis, in 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees arriving at the Greek islands were transported by boat to the mainland, to northern Greece and beyond. Neighboring states sought protection from sudden and massive migrant flows by temporarily blocking entry or closing their borders altogether.
These newly restrictive national migration policies, adopted in haste, often clashed with aspects of EU law, such as the common visa requirement and free movement of the Schengen Area, which consists of twenty-six European states that officially abolished all passport and other types of control at their mutual borders in 1995. Repeated attempts by the European Commission to establish quotas for asylum seekers, and a more equitable distribution of the migration burden among member states, failed. An EU-Turkey Statement was issued in April 2016, promising billions of euros as compensation to Turkey for stemming the exodus of migrants and refugees crossing over to Greece. Implementation of the EU-Turkey deal has reduced migrant flows but remains fraught with significant capacity constraints and delays. The effectiveness of NATO's involvement in patrolling the eastern Mediterranean Sea to deter people-smuggling and stem illegal migration from Turkey has not been assessed. The Balkan corridor from the northern Greek border to points north has been sealed. Austria and Hungary have also closed their borders. Other countries have enacted similar measures to tighten border controls. In the meantime, while Chancellor Merkel paid a political price at home for her open-door policy and is on her way out, 76,000 refugees are stuck in Greece. The Dublin Regulation, requiring that migrants register at the first point of entry in the EU, virtually guarantees that more will be returned to Greece --and other frontline states-- from northern Europe.
A majority of Europeans believe that the migration crisis has been mismanaged. Significantly, many Europeans think that the influx of refugees will increase the incidence of terrorism in their countries. In response, EU decision-makers are adapting their strategic goals: in the future, higher priority will be placed on stopping irregular migration flows at their source, before they reach Europe’s borders. These goals are sketched out in two important policy statements, issued in early March 2019. In the first, French President Emmanuel Macron offers ideas for a “European renaissance”, featuring a unified asylum policy and stricter external border controls. The second important policy statement, issued by the European Commission on 6 March, posits “The European Agenda on Migration.” In parallel with President Macron, the Commission considers it essential to pursue a comprehensive approach to restrict migration flows and strengthen external border protection.
The policy priorities announced by President Macron and the European Commission have yet to be endorsed by the European Council of twenty-eight Heads of State. Far from reflecting the prevailing public sentiment of the European demos, President Macron’s and the Commission’s policy pronouncements mask intense controversies and debates on two key issues: border security and asylum policy.
Control of borders defines the sovereignty of the modern nation state. When the EU created the border-free, visa-free Schengen Area, the aim was to abolish all internal border controls so as to complete the common market. The need for a reinforced security infrastructure at the external borders of the EU constitutes a divisive issue, due to the social, political and resource burdens that such an infrastructure would impose on the most vulnerable member states. Related factors are the size and effectiveness of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), which coordinates contributions of border guards from EU member states. The recent announcement by the EU Commission to increase the size of FRONTEX to 10,000 by 2025 is viewed as highly unrealistic. There is no political consensus or resources to be allocated to such an enterprise.
Then there is the issue of a common asylum policy; the EU has been grappling with it since the beginning of the migration crisis. Absent a common policy, each state has been granting asylum based on its own laws and interpretations of the UN Charter. According to the EU Commissioner for Migration, the current system is broken. To fix it, the Commissioner recently submitted seven proposals, requiring agreement on all components of a Common European Asylum System, such as: step up returns of individuals not qualified to receive asylum; ensure that return decisions are enforced; address the root causes of migration; and tighten enforcement of the EU-Turkey deal. Aiming for consensus to stem irregular migration at the source in northern Africa, the Commission has set up the Trust Fund for Africa, with planned contributions of nearly three billion euros from the EU budget. But it is unlikely to be fully funded anytime soon.
The EU’s newly-developed strategy of containment of the migration crisis through a unified common asylum policy, tighter border controls, and stricter management of migrant flows at their source is an acknowledgment that the status quo is unsustainable and must be reformed. The implementation of policy reforms proposed by the EU Commission requires political consensus from twenty-eight Heads of State. Such a consensus cannot be formed as long as the migration burden is placed unevenly on border states. The migration crisis has reinforced pre-existing centripetal forces unleashed by serious macroeconomic and resource imbalances across the EU. Recent developments in several EU member states of re-nationalization of policies dealing with border controls and other measures to protect or project national sovereignty provide strong indications that the migration challenge poses a greater danger to European integration than the debt crisis.
Dr. Irene Kyriakopoulos is Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the authors' own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.