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Why are Europe’s Crises “Existential”?

March 2016 may well make it into the history books as a make or break month for the EU writes Rosa Balfour. The EU-Turkey Summit of March 7 and the European Council Summit of March 17-18 will have to produce short and long term measures addressing the current mayhem caused by the European governments’ disorderly responses to the surge of refugees fleeing from conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere.

To be clear: the crisis is “existential,” as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry remarked, but not because it is caused by the refugee influx; the source of the crisis is the inability of EU governments to deal with it. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees put it, we are living through a ‘self-induced’ humanitarian crisis. It is hard to see how solutions will take shape, but it is safe to assume that continuing this paralysis will lead to further disintegration, starting with Britain leaving the EU.

Responses to the refugee influx so far have swung from a few lone voices expressing the humanitarian imperative of offering refuge to people fleeing war to deterrence strategies to keep refugees out – where and with what consequences seem not to have been on the minds of these decision-makers. Solutions on the table to be discussed include strengthening the external border and an aid package for receiving countries such as Turkey and Greece. The obligatory relocation proposal has gone nowhere – not just because of the member states not endorsing it, but also because it is not a good plan.

Something all-together different will be needed: a resounding recognition that deterring refugees has no future so long as there are people on the move, that Europe must put its humanitarian and human rights principles into action, and that there is no alternative to working together. Once this is established, short and long term measures need to be found. Short term ones will include a major solidarity fund to support all those countries, in the EU and in the region, which are helping the refugees, without forced location. International donors will need to be persuaded too. This should stop the predictions of certain death for the Schengen area. Longer-term measures will have to address both foreign policy and integration policies of migrant communities, and create a common asylum system. There is no escape from this.

But looking further ahead allows us to take a hard look at ourselves on the causes of this crisis. The actions taken by various governments have actually made the crisis more, not less, acute. Why is the EU at this existential crossroads? Is it the accumulation of crises – Eurozone, Russia, refugees, and BREXIT – that has eroded solidarity? Or is there a deeper cause?

The years of the Eurozone crisis have seen moments in which EU structures seemed on the brink, but they have managed to hold together, whatever the merit of solutions identified. Though the crisis is not over, but the Eurozone has shown resilience so far. The Russian annexation of Crimea and continuing destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine has also tested EU unity which, against all odds, has held strong. In both cases, public opinion was deeply divided and vociferous, but ultimately did not influence the governments’ choices.  With the Eurozone, institutions such as the European Central Bank played a role. On Russia, NATO provided anchorage, as well as Franco-Germany leadership.

Then the refugee crisis hit Europe at its core. It involved policy areas and competences that have seen rapid evolution at the EU level during the past decades, but without full ‘communitarisation’ – leaving only elements of a common migration and asylum policy, foreign policy cooperation, and internal security cooperation. Yet crucial policies relating to health, education, pension systems, and welfare remain firmly in the hands of national governments. The crisis in responding to the refugee influx goes to the essence of the dilemma in Europe and the EU: who should decide on these matters?

This is the major quandary the EU needs to face – beyond devising effective answers to the refugee conundrum during the coming weeks. The EU’s popularity among its citizens has been in decline for the past twenty-five years, not just as a consequence of the crises. National governments have been ambiguous about the EU, blaming it for unpopular policies while taking the merit when politically convenient. Current complexity requires cooperative approaches among EU governments, but the drive for citizens to favor “more Europe” as a solution is no longer there. National governments are not that better placed in light of the populist challenge affecting traditional political parties in many advanced and prosperous democracies. Any longer-term look at the EU’s future will have to tackle the broader question of legitimacy, not just of the EU, which is frequently questioned, but of the intersection between national and EU governance.

Rosa Balfour is a senior fellow at the German Marshal Fund’s (GMF) Brussels office. This article was first published by the GMF. – See more at:

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