Europe under 
pressure to act

What are the elements that Europe needs to bring together to tackle the refugee crisis?

The great wave of refugees heading for Europe was the third major test of the European Union’s cohesion and ability to act in 2015. In January of this year, the war in eastern Ukraine escalated. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande’s initiative for a second Minsk agreement brought about an end to hostilities and preserved European unity in dealing with Russia. In summer 2015, Greece was saved from financial collapse by action in compliance with eurozone rules and institutions. Here, too, the Federal Government’s persistence and patience were instrumental in bringing about a change of policy in Athens.

Like the other two challenges, the wave of migrants is a crisis we should have seen coming. In 2014 alone, more than 200,000 asylum seekers arrived in Germany, with numbers reaching nearly one million by the end of 2015. With its decision in September to admit large numbers of refugees to Germany, the federal government created a new situation in the EU. Germany‘s bold humanitarian gesture might have effectively eased the burden on the main countries of arrival, Greece and Hungary, as well as the transit countries if it had proved possible at the same time to close the external borders of the Schengen Area, within which there are no stationary border controls, get Turkey to change its refugee policy and end the hostilities in Syria. The overstretched Dublin Regulation that focuses asylum proced­ures on the countries of first entry could have been revised and a distribution mechanism for refugees established. These co-requisites for success were not met and the momentum of the influx of immigrants created a pressure to make decisions that exceeded the EU countries’ capabilities. And so the attempt to defuse the crisis has led to a deepening of political conflicts within the EU. It’s the first time the EU countries have failed to close ranks in a crisis.

The most visible sign of the new situation is the fact that the distribution of the current number of 160,000 refugees from EU countries of first arrival, which was pushed through by a majority vote, is being implemented by the member states themselves tentatively at best. The conflict within the EU involves three factions: the countries most affected by the wave of refugees along the route from Croatia to Sweden; the group of Central and Eastern European EU member states, most of them lacking a tradition of immigration and an integration policy; and the other countries in Western Europe that are taking a back seat – like the United Kingdom, which is not a member of the Schengen Area – or adopting a more passive stance in the hope of avoiding major strains on domestic politics.

There is a considerable gap between the initiatives at European level and actually coping with the large number of refugees, who deserve to be treated with respect, charity and fairness on arrival. The former have a medium- to long-term impact, the latter needs to be accomplished immediately and successfully in order to maintain social peace in countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden where two-thirds of all asylum applications worldwide are submitted today.

The elements needed for a European settlement of the refugee crisis are recognised in the EU’s capitals but so far their implementation has been patchy. Such a settlement requires five interlocking components. Firstly, Europe needs internal solidarity. That includes consistently applying existing rules and dependably easing the burden on countries that are particularly hard hit. Many experts were surprised by the fact that the EU countries strengthened cooperation on just­ice and home affairs years ago by applying elements of the Community method. This decision-making process empha­sises the role of supranational institutions, although it is precisely the area of justice and home affairs that has remained strongly intergovernmental – in other words, decision-making authority here has been largely retained by the member states. Now the weakness of this mixed system is becoming evident with the failure to implement joint decisions. Secondly, the EU – or the Schengen Area at least – needs joint external border secur­ity that is guaranteed by all the countries involved. At the borders, the EU needs properly equipped reception centres where refugees are taken care of and registered. Their asylum applications would be processed there and, once a decision has been taken, they would either continue their journey into the EU or be sent back to their respective countries of origin.

Thirdly, Europeans should respond earlier and more rigorously to crises and wars in their vicinity. The EU needs a humanitarian task force, visibly complementing the assistance provided by the United Nations, to take proper care of refugees in the region. If the neighbouring countries are overwhelmed by the situation, the EU states could agree on contingents – with Turkey, for instance – allowing refugees to travel directly and in an orderly manner from the partner countries to the EU. In return, the thus relieved neighbouring countries would have to effectively control their external borders and put a stop to human trafficking. Fourthly, a far-sighted crisis response policy is the best way to tackle the causes of this kind of migration. For that, Europeans would need joint economic, financial, diplomatic and military resources and the will to resolve conflicts in regions beyond their immediate vicinity, to prevent or end wars by political means and induce other countries or external powers to engage constructively. Fifthly, the EU needs a common asylum and immigration policy that would also enable it to share burdens fairly among member states. Too often the asylum process becomes a substitute for the lack of resources to ensure properly regulated immigration.

Joint action along these five lines is difficult given the pressure created by the large number of refugees arriving in just a few countries; in the face of the fears and opposition expressed by some sections of European societies; and faced with the attacks by populist parties in many countries which promise people salvation by regaining national sovereignty at the expense of the EU. Failure to produce at least one package featuring important elements of these five components means that the EU will be heading for an uncertain future. If Schengen falls apart, the single market and the monetary union will also suffer. If Europe fails, it will not be because of the number of refugees but because of policymakers’ inability to frame a common response.

This article was originally published in German on, where it is available in translation into a number of other languages.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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