European disunion on migrants policy

EU member states' failure to agree on a resettlement plan for migrants casts doubts on the concept of'one Europe'

Much of the conventional wisdom among academics over the last decade or so has focused on the convergent trends in European government policies towards both migrants and asylum seekers.

Spurred on by the European Union's legislation and the abandonment of internal borders, the concept of "one Europe" when it comes to migration, refugees and asylum seekers - at least within the confines of the Schengen zone of 26 of the 28 EU states - had become increasingly credible.

But recent events have formidably challenged that view.


A policeman in Austria directing migrants to buses. Thousands had crossed the border on foot from Hungary, which has increasingly focused on a policy of denying migrants entry. PHOTO: REUTERS

Over four million people have fled the war in Syria.

Hundreds of thousands hope to find safety and security in Europe.

The comments of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban earlier this month, however, truly shredded the myth of "one Europe."

Speaking as the Hungarian government denied access to over 2,000 people awaiting transportation northward from Budapest's Keleti train station, Mr Orban pronounced the issue a "German problem" rather than an European one.

His comment truly exposed the increasingly problematic claim that there is a single European migration or refugee policy.

Faced with the pressure to accommodate the unprecedented surge in volume, Europe has returned to a traditional formula: The search for national governmental solutions in dealing with a global problem.

Each to their own or, as the old proverb goes, "the devil take the hindmost".

The disintegration of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria - from at least coherent political units into failed states - has posed two kinds of problems for Europe.

DOUBLE WHAMMY

The first is an increasing security concern for Western European countries. Terrorism has become a more common issue on the streets of Europe's capitals and, more recently, on its train system.

The primary recent security focus has been on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria recruits returning to Europe, purportedly armed, trained and instructed to cause chaos. The response of Europe's governments to this problem has been to reassert their solidarity.

As recently as June, they pledged their support for the European Commission's counter-terrorism strategy, first created in 2005.

But the second issue has been the growing population flows of the people who are innocent victims of the violence in the Middle East.

And here, the thin veneer of solidarity has been pierced as the agreed principles have effectively been ignored. Providing some context helps understand why.

Europe has been besieged by a flow of migrants and refugees fleeing war and deprivation for which it is ill-prepared.

Over 107,000 migrants reached the EU's borders in July alone.

Greece, Italy and Malta have been at the front lines of the problem. More than 160,000 migrants and refugees have entered Greece so far this year, compared to 45,412 last year.

The Maltese and Italians, like the Greeks, have accepted people, but all three have repeatedly appealed for EU assistance.

Now, Hungary has become the latest hot spot. But the Hungarian government has increasingly focused on a policy of denying them entry. EU officials, like European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Council President Donald Tusk, have called for a coordinated European policy in response.

So have some major European leaders, notably Dr Angela Merkel of Germany. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, EU members have spent months disputing how many refugees, migrants and asylum seekers each country should accept.

Germany and Sweden have moved ahead, accepting record numbers of immigrants.

But German requests in spring for a more equitable, mandatory distribution of those arriving were rebuffed. A voluntary one was established instead, with Britain opting out of the scheme. Not altogether surprisingly, those efforts had little positive effect.

Indeed, the proposed aggregate voluntary distribution figure of 40,000 in spring was reduced to 32,500 in summer. But more than 10 times that number has arrived at the EU's borders so far this year.

Left to their own devices, members states have responded in markedly different ways.

GERMANY SHOWS THE WAY

The Germans have resolutely demonstrated their willingness to accept refugees in percentages far beyond their proportion of the EU's total population.

German officials have said they now expect up to 800,000 people to seek asylum there by the end of this year. This compares with the 626,000 who arrived in all 28 EU states last year. In fact, about 83,000 people arrived in Germany seeking asylum in July alone.

Another 50,000 arrived in the first half of last month. And as we've seen earlier this month, the flow of people has increased.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has insisted that the country will respond adequately in the face of this challenge. The government will work to process asylum applications faster, change procedures and increase accommodation for new arrivals.

This view is shared by all of Germany's major political parties and the harassment of newly arrived migrants by fringe groups has been widely condemned, with Dr Merkel describing violent protests as "shameful" and "vile".

Only Sweden has proportionately matched the German position.

The response of other major European countries has paled by comparison. This summer, the British have focused most of their political energy on arguing with the French about the relatively few people who might get to Britain through the Eurostar's Channel Tunnel at Calais.

Only last week did Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron belatedly pledge to accept 20,000 more Syrian refugees over the next five years.

Now, French President Francois Hollande is echoing Dr Merkel's sentiments in support of "a permanent and obligatory mechanism" to allocate migrants across the EU. He announced last Monday that his country would take in 24,000 asylum seekers over two years.

The Slovak government said they would accept only Christians, and in small numbers. The Poles have agreed to accept 2,000 refugees because they already host tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled conflict. Other Eastern European countries have refused to accept anyone.

For those familiar with the history of Europe, it is indeed a curious turn when Germany's chancellor is the only humane voice in Europe, calling on each country to do only what "is morally and legally required" of them - and listening to the silence in response.

• The writer is professor in the division of global affairs and the department of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

This article first appeared in theconversation.com, a website of analyses from academics and researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'European disunion on migrants policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe