Europe’s cohesion is lost in the Balkan’s quagmire

Not too long ago the main concern about Europe seemed to be its super-state potential – the time has come to seriously worry about the opposite scenario.

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The current political frictions among member states are providing eye-opening evidence, not just on the state of cohesion in the European Union, but also on the linkage between cohesion and Europe’s capacity to act together. In the prevailing view, cohesion should grow with interdependence and interaction among Europeans. Higher levels of cohesion should also strengthen support for joint or common policy responses and help to build the EU’s capacity to act in unison. This “virtuous circle” also works the other way. Demonstrable and successful capacity to act help build cohesion and output legitimacy reinforces the belief in the added value of working together.

Social scientists have long focused on such linkages under the heading of “diffuse support”. Mostly, it has been measured by polling data under the assumption that structural links, such as economic interdependence or the density of cross border interaction, would reflect widely held attitudes and beliefs. In fact, structural drivers of deeper integration have been neglected, though they have probably affected elite perceptions more quickly and profoundly than those of the wider public. Also, countervailing sentiments have been misread under the premise that higher levels of interdependence and interaction would necessarily lead to more support for the EU. A coincidence of functionalist centripetal momentum on the one hand, arising out of the need to cooperate with other member states, and the centrifugal power of, say, national identity on the other, was unaccounted for. And yet, it happened. The crisis triggered by the size and dynamics of migration into the EU has put both the functionalist expectation of integration and the identity of European societies into question – in terms of both national narratives and the “European-ness” of these societies.

In this sense, the refugee crisis has developed into a vicious circle damaging equally the EU’s cohesion and its capacity to act together. Evidently, the numbers of arrivals are overburdening member states on the borders, and this is not just a recent development – migration to Europe has been on the table for longer than a year now. The joint policy scheme is no longer applied in the way it was meant to be. The severely insufficient capacities of member states (in particular in Greece with its deep governance crisis) do not allow for a return of migrants. Member states launching maritime operations to rescue refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean, such as Italy, or those launching welcome operations to rescue refugees from unbearable circumstances in countries of arrival, are being accused of enlarging the problem by fuelling the flow into Europe.

In terms of cohesion, the crisis has revealed several weak spots for the EU. First is the lack of solidarity disguised as concern about further centralisation of powers in the EU. The majority of member state governments refused to accept relocation as a means of burden sharing. Formally, they decided against binding quotas, and in practical terms left the countries in need out in the cold. Voluntary pledges were not implemented when the number of refugees in question amounted to 40,000, and they have not been implemented under the current ceiling of 160,000. A strong minority of member states rejected solidarity through relocation altogether. It must have dawned on then Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz that there was an unsustainable contradiction between Poland’s strong rejection of David Cameron’s plan to limit the freedom of movement and Poland’s wish not to participate in any relocation of refugees from Hungary, Greece or Italy. The successor government in Poland, led by Beata Szydlo, will now seek to have it both ways, fighting Cameron on mobility for workers, and fighting Brussels on relocation of refugees.

The second weakness opens up over the founding values of European integration. Quite obviously, the consensus over the distinctive quality of European societies, as expressed in the European treaties, does not exist in real life. Openness, pluralism, tolerance – these are all notions that do not, apparently, bear the same meaning or significance across the EU. At the very least, they are not considered as fundamental principles that are applied to European citizens and non-EU citizens in the same way. Once fully comprehended by the world, these skewed values will negatively affect the normative credibility of Europe. The value proposition of the EU has suffered, and European diplomacy is giving up the high-ground it has earned by moving itself beyond the power politics of traditional major players.

Another blow to collective solidarity arises out of the deepening split of the EU into those affected and those pretending not to be affected. As the refugees are hitting the mud and cold on their route across the Balkans, countries along the way, from Greece to Germany, largely find themselves alone in the management of the problem. There are some resources in the form of EU funding, but the commitments of national funding and staff secondment are slow to materialise. It is these countries that now define Europe’s response to the humanitarian dimension of the crisis, as they struggle intensely with conflicts among them. Any policy change on national borders of one member state will greatly affect the situation of others within two or three days. This is what keeps the EU together, even though it seriously impedes the effectiveness of their cooperation at the same time. Meanwhile, the EU is courting Turkey with financial offers to limit the flow of refugees upstream.

The current weakness of the EU’s capacity to act is striking. Not only will the EU fail to develop the means to deal with immigration and asylum on a larger scale (and so Europe’s policy in this area will simply not be effective), or to protect the integrity of its borders and of its border policies by collective means (and so its border management will be weak), the EU is about to lose part of its acquis.

Likely, the Schengen regime will be weakened as a consequence of this crisis, not least because larger numbers of migrants will be excluded from its benefits. And likely, the peace building capacity of the EU in the regions producing so many refugees will not become stronger, because the current split between member states cuts right through the group of those whose assistance is most needed for such operations. The much needed policy reform and respective budgetary adjustments will also suffer from the current experience. In three to four years time, when the next multi-annual financial framework will have to be negotiated, divisions will stall strong propositions. The financial transfers from the centre of the EU to its peripheries will be lost. The traditional solidarity argument will have been broken. The euro zone will not be able to pull the EU along as the same divisions will shape it. Should it come to agreement between euro zone members they will likely implement any financial burden-sharing agreement in the context of a new budget, deepening the gap in a two-speed Europe. Germany, the much-acclaimed lead actor, will not be the power broker in conflicts to come. Rather, Berlin has become a demandeur on the refugee issue, and Chancellor Merkel’s request of solidarity has lost its push in lengthy negotiations that have been unmatched by actual implementation.

Not too long ago the main concern about Europe seemed to be its super-state potential. The time has come to seriously worry about the opposite scenario. More so than the other two challenges of 2015 – the war in Ukraine and Greece’s suffocating debt – the refugee crisis is revealing how fragile Europe really is, and how weak the pillars of its underlying principles have become. 

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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