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Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Unravelling of the Union

Turkey, with a population of 75 million, is hosting around 2 million refugees from the ongoing wars in Syrian and Iraq. Lebanon, with less than 5 million citizens, is hosting over 1 million. Jordan, population 6.4 million, now hosts close to 1 million writes Rosa Balfour. These well-known figures show how the series of disputes among European decision-makers over relocating 120,000 refugees is ludicrously incommensurate with the problem. Yet it might well constitute another step toward the unravelling of the European Union.

The signatories of the Schengen Agreement, which created a borderless area across much of Europe, can certainly reinstate national borders in exceptional circumstances, as Germany unilaterally did earlier this week. It is not the first time that has happened. In addition to a couple of circumscribed episodes in the 2000s, Denmark did so in 2011 allegedly to combat smuggling, and France in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions to prevent 20,000 Tunisians from entering from Italy (just as Tunisia was hosting 400,000 refugees from war-ridden Libya). Indeed, in 2011 there was talk of a Schengen crisis and the need to change rules. Countries on the frontiers of the EU have repeatedly called for better burden-sharing. But nothing has ever been done about it.

The unfolding refugee disaster is symptomatic of a profound European crisis. It shows yet again the fractures that have dramatically surfaced across the eurozone. These fractures have not split the EU yet, but this summer leaders came close to a tipping point, and there is nothing to signal that there will not be another roller-coaster negotiation as long as the deeper structural deficiencies of economic convergence across the continent are not addressed.

The current problem should also have been anticipated. The refugee crisis, incorrectly characterized by many as a migration crisis, has not merely fallen upon Europe. It is also a consequence of a foreign policy failure, shared by Europeans and many other countries, where international inertia allowed the 2011 Syrian uprising to become an interminable civil and then regional war.

Europe’s response so far has been to support in-between countries in an effort to outsource the management of the refugee and humanitarian crisis to already over-burdened neighbors, regardless of conditions in the countries neighboring Syria. This policy has major handicaps. It assumes that these countries can act as buffer zones to protect Europe, with strong borders and internal structures to host refugees in full respect of international law. It ignores the fact that population movements cannot be stopped. (The recent management of the Mediterranean Sea has shown how the closure of one route leads to the opening of another.) And it makes Europe vulnerable to developments in third countries, which may not always be to Europe’s liking. It was not that long ago that former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi kept Europeans in check by threatening to send more migrants across the sea.

The foreign policy failures of Europe should not be underestimated. This is not the only issue on which member states are divided. A further crisis has hit Europe on its eastern border with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. The unity achieved over Russia to date could dissipate if European capitals continue quarrelling. Earlier this week, travel bans against Russian individuals under sanctions were extended for another six months, but the difficult economic sanctions will be up for renewal in early 2016. With European solidarity significantly weakened in general and member states employing short-term tactics, Europe is making itself increasingly vulnerable to externally induced problems.

If the Schengen system continues to be questioned in this way, it might start the unravelling of one of the most important achievements of European integration. Schengen was not just about the external borders of the EU; it was first and foremost about dismantling barriers inside Europe. The continent started integrating with the free movement of goods, and expanded to capital, services, and persons, making the Union more than simply a single market. Few European citizens want an EU in which capital can flow easily but people must show their identity cards to move from one country to the next.

Europe is failing on its own standards and international obligations. There are countless victims of Europe’s failure to respond. The millions of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and in Africa are paying the highest price, but the blindness of European leaders may well result in the unravelling the Schengen system and the further splintering of Europe.

Rosa Balfour is a senior fellow in GMF’s Brussels office. This article was first published by the GMF.

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