Asylum crisis threatens to weaken EU
In an interview with the BBC, Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said that the EU itself was under threat from the crisis posed by pressure of refugee seekers. This on the face of it would seem exaggerated. If some member states are more generous than others in accepting refugees why should that undermine their capacity to work together within the framework of the EU treaties? The Schengen system of borderless travel across most EU member states has already partially broken and could completely break down as member states try to stop or regulate the flows of external migrants. This is a serious blow given the impact of the Schengen agreement on everyday life and symbolism in breaking down barriers. It does not mean that end of the EU, but the fact that people like Mr Valls are talking in these terms is evidence of a deep crisis.
At a time of several other difficulties
The challenge of the asylum seekers is highlighting the differences between and within EU countries and comes on top of several other problems. One of these is the forthcoming UK referendum on whether to stay in the EU, with UK opinion polls suggesting that those likely to vote to stay in or leave are quite evenly divided. A vote to leave would deprive the EU of a major player, which has made a particularly important contribution to the development of the EU’s single market. Furthermore its departure would set a precedent, which would give impetus to anti-EU sentiment on other countries where it is already strong including France, Italy and Poland.
Another major problem is posed by the fact that some of the countries that acceded to the EU in 2004, notably Poland and Hungary have weakened their compliance with political criteria under which they were allowed to join, such as the impartial rule of law, as for example in the packing of Poland’s constitutional court with its own sympathisers by the newly elected Law and Justice government. The attempt by the European Commission to monitor such measures has provoked increased hostility to the EU in Poland and Hungary, and this has become meshed up in hostility to the EU’s strongest country, Germany.
A third problem is the euro zone crisis. Although the threatened departure of Greece from the euro zone was averted last year there are still considerable tensions between countries of the south with high debts and northern countries. Recently there has been an increase in tensions between Italy on the one hand and Germany and the European Commission on the other.
Differences over how to tackle the refugee influx is exacerbating the other differences. There is no simple answer: one policy extreme would mean that the EU abandons any pretence to stand up for human rights of those not already EU residents; the opposite of free entry for all genuine refugees would create unsupportable social and political tensions even in countries like Germany with an initially welcoming attitude. A muddled middle way is the only one that can hope to avoid one or other such consequence.
Commission takes wrong approach to Greece
But there are ways in which the EU could do better. In particular the key role of Greece in the crisis should be acknowledged. On January 27th the Commission published a report highly critical of Greece, threatening to expel in from the Schengen zone if it did not do better. This followed a proposal to help Macedonia man its frontier with Greece without consulting the Greek government. Even if the Greek economy were not experiencing the most severe economic crisis any member state has experienced since the early days of the EU, it or any other country would struggle to cope in a humane manner with the huge numbers crossing the sea onto Greek islands. In contrast to the Commission’s attitude a group of academics have put forward islanders that have rescued and helped refugees forward has a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Greece should be praised for what it has done rather than rebuked for what it has not done, and given far more funding to help it manage camps and processing centres to separate refugees from economic migrants and provide migrants in Greece with basic needs in the meantime. It may be that it is will be no longer practical to keep fully open frontiers with Greece given the amount of migrants arriving there, but this should not be portrayed as a punishment but rather as an unavoidable necessity in which Greece needs far more support from its partners.