Europe’s jigsaw response to the refugee crisis

It is clear that there will be no good solution to the refugee crisis, only partial responses.

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The waves of refugees now entering Europe from almost all corners highlight surprising changes inside our continent. Most impressive is the German response, perhaps due to a strong ethical belief on the part of Angela Merkel. Who would have predicted that the country only yesterday chided for its egoism – or worse, when it comes to the Greek economic crisis, a Germany that is still largely shirking any hard power role – would rise to the challenge of sheltering hundreds of thousands of refugees in a dignified way? The decisions to give up the repatriation to the first EU country of arrival and to grant all Syrians refugee status, are milestones in the refugee crisis.

Germany is not alone in rising to the occasion. Italy, much maligned because its crisis-ridden economy nurtures labour segregation, has nonetheless done a lot to lessen the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean. Not only does it take in all those who manage to land on its shores, but it also accepts those saved on the high seas by third parties.  Sicilian towns, themselves hit by stupefying unemployment levels, have set up large temporary housing shelters where basic public services are provided.  

Yet both the German and Italian humane response have their drawbacks: they are creating a massive pull for millions of potential refugees who see Europe as a haven from civil war or oppression, and also for economic refugees who seek to ride the wave. We are beginning to experience the consequences of shying away from intervention in Syria and ending too soon the action in Libya. Those who thought the occupation of Iraq was the worst case scenario that could happen are now taught a hard lesson: Syria is destroyed more thoroughly than any other Middle East country, with a new level for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Libya has become a transit point for human traffic from the African continent. As morally commendable as the new German response is, it cannot meet the challenge that chaos and indifference from the West have fostered in Syria and in several countries of East Africa.

To the European East, a stronger sense of history brings public responses which are not so great. Macedonia’s cynical decision to hire buses across its territory, pointing the refugees further north, and Hungary’s and Bulgaria’s decisions to wall or militarize their border, are deeply troubling. This moral discomfort pales, however, when one considers the inadequate French and British responses to the refugee crisis. Each is impeachable in its own way.  David Cameron’s glorification of a UK Fortress and the vilification of Schengen caters to populist instinct all over Europe, and not only inside Britain’s isolationist right. It is also hypocritical, with the UK being particularly open to illegal employment as a key asset towards a flexible labour market.

But with political exceptions before WW II, the UK ceased a long time ago to be a nation of immigration. Not so for France, which is trapped in its contradictions.  The level of social subsidies and the overall tax load – highest in Europe – have created a backlash against immigration. The erosion of France’s cultural and linguistic integration, which was the counterpart to immigration, also creates a backlash, not to mention the challenge of radical Islam. France is now trapped between good words – mostly to others – and insufficient action: the social dereliction at Calais, which is only a footnote compared to other refugee sites, is a symbol. Yet France has done more, and pushed for more, in terms of stabilizing the African continent or the Near East than any other European country.

It is clear that there will be no good solution to the refugee crisis, only partial responses.

Several conclusions stand out:

  •  Non-intervention (Syria) or intervention fatigue (Libya) have consequences that are worse than the interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan) decried in the recent past. These are not black holes, they are consequences of our flight from issues.
  •  Neglect of hard power means that failing states and societies spill over to Europe, which  has no natural geographical barrier nor a collective resignation to building walls: Hungary, or Israel, a quasi-European nation, remain exceptions.
  •  Liberal economic policies, such as pursued by the UK, cannot be sustained without free movement of labour. The human smugglers and traffickers across the Channel are actually more in tune with the UK’s rather successful economic policies than David Cameron himself.

One can only have a dream for Europe. It would possess Angela Merkel’s active compassion for refugees, François Hollande’s policy of forward defence on Europe’s periphery, and David Cameron’s resolutely liberal economic policies. Yet short term catering to the electorates means that each of this politicians only possesses a fragment of the courage needed to recreate Europe. It is the whole puzzle that should be assembled, and not just some pieces on the European scene.

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


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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