Can Europe cope with migration?

I have come to disagree with the suitability of the phrase “migrant and refugee crisis” or variants thereof. What official Europe is really experiencing is a collective action crisis on how to deal with the influx of migrants and refugees. An effective common EU position cannot be formulated under the prevailing conditions while Member States, either individually or in small groups, proceed to introduce their own policies in the face of rising challenges. It may thus be argued that the Union must first overcome its own contradictions prior to solving any of the problems it is confronted with.

What explains the EU’s inability to deliver a system-wide solution is, first and foremost, the absence of sufficient policy instruments and institutions. Migration and asylum policies have not been integrated at the supranational level as closely as those of monetary and fiscal affairs. What is in place is either ill suited for the task, or worse, a part of the problem.

Secondly, migration is one the issues that is very dear to citizens. Intergovernmental agreements behind closed doors or purely technocratic initiatives—both standard EU practices—will be met with fierce popular resistance. Upper echelon policy-making relies on the principle of consensus between the Member States. With such a controversial issue at hand it will be extremely difficult for European leaders to reach an agreement that offers a clear direction on what needs to be done.

There is a trade-off between normativity and practicality. Grandstanding and moralising aside, if EU states are willing to commit to a “fortress Europe” policy, as it seems to be the case, out of hope that it will provide disincentives to migrants and asylum seekers, then they might as well be prepared to bear the responsibility of the additional human suffering it will bring about. Conversely, an “open borders” approach must be much more than just positive speech. It will need to be accompanied by a comprehensive investment strategy, geared towards integrating newcomers to the European social milieu, while creating new jobs to accommodate them and the local populace.

Institutional constraints

Europe’s internal free movement zone is founded on a legal framework known as the Schengen Agreement. The underlying idea of the Schengen Area is that internal border controls are lifted, while checks on the external borders are reinforced. On the face of it Schengen is to be treated as if it were a single state, where passport-free travel is a given.

While that may be a useful metaphor it ends up being misleading. Contrary to nations, this system does not have a unified platform for decision-making and, most importantly, it lacks the tools necessary for dealing with forces that create asymmetric shocks on the participating states.

In fact, the Schengen zone is nothing like a unified whole, since each participating nation remains fully responsible for maintaining control—and responsibility—over its territory, even when its borders overlap with the external borders of the system as such. By its very design, Schengen places a disproportionate burden on the states that stand as entry points for third country migrants. At present, those mostly are Greece and Italy.

Compounding Schengen’s systemic flaws, the EU law for registering asylum seekers, also known as the Dublin regulation, foresees that requests for asylum are to be processed at the Member State of entry. The sheer magnitude of the phenomenon has rendered this piece of legislation largely obsolete. Greece and Italy cannot tackle an EU-scale phenomenon with their own means. Hence, their eagerness not to comply with Dublin’s provisions. While their decision is understandable, it does constitute a fait accompli, which then forces the hand of other Member States. The result, as we now witness it, is the gradual imposition of border checks from the destination to the transit countries and from there to the entry states.

Coming to the notion of safeguarding the external borders, the EU has in place an agency responsible for the task: Frontex. Without willing to delve into the content of its policies, this entity is both under-resourced and legally limited in its function. Rather than being a border and coast guard for the EU as such, it is obliged to cooperate with national authorities and function under their jurisdiction for all operations that take place within their sovereign space. In doing so, it is inevitably constrained by the international relations of those states, an issue that is made manifest in the Aegean Sea where Greece and Turkey have unresolved disputes.

This shows among other things that the EU does not have any of the essential powers that define a nation state, such as the capacity to exercise legitimate force over the management of borders, territory, exclusive economic zone, and airspace. What the EU can do is contingent on an agreement among its Member States.

The EU may live without Schengen

We often draw parallels between the euro crisis and the migration challenges Europe faces. While there are merits to that kind of comparison, it can obfuscate things by treating two dissimilar topics as similar.

The Schengen passport-free zone, though very important and convenient to the lives of many a citizen, is not a vital part of the EU edifice. Losing it would certainly be a huge material and political cost, especially over the short-to-medium term but would ultimately not have a deleterious effect on the four freedoms of movement (of goods, persons, capital, and services) on which the single market is based. These have existed prior to—and regardless of—the Schengen Agreement.

In contradistinction, the collapse of the euro would have had far-reaching ramifications for the European project. Litanies to the contrary notwithstanding, European integration is, for the most part, a matter of economics, of dismantling barriers to trade and of allowing for the unencumbered flow of the factors of production across the entirety of the system. While the single currency does not, in and of itself, act as a catalyst for the convergence of European economies, it does nevertheless provide the cornerstone for the institutional architecture of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), together with the nascent fiscal and banking unions.

In the absence of the euro and, hence, without a common monetary policy, there would be no practical necessity for a coordinated fiscal stance and for a single legal framework to regulate the financial sector. Without the EMU each state would be tempted to employ its own tools for adjusting to an economic downturn, on both monetary and fiscal fronts. These could range from running a budget deficit for the purposes of propping up aggregate demand, to manipulating the national currency in order to boost exports, to imposing restrictions on the domestic banking system.

The kind of capital controls that appear as the exception in Greece (and Cyprus before), could have become the norm, while most likely constituting only part of a wider and much more pernicious beggar-thy-neighbour policy response to a recession, much like how European states currently respond to migration without any regard for its impact on their partners as well as the livelihood of those involved.

As things currently stand, the repeal or de facto irrelevance of the Schengen Agreement, the Dublin regulation, etc., would not be enough to deal a mortal blow to the EU. Migration policies would be fully re-nationalised, and/or perhaps a “core Schengen” would be instituted. The “fortress Europe” approach that is being tacitly yet decisively brought to the fore would eventually be rendered the de jure normality.

While bleak, such a future would not signal the end of European integration, at least not as it was originally conceived, i.e. as a market-oriented project. It could, however, be the start of an irreversible trend of rolling back the integration process to the point where only the single market and key parts of the EMU would be preserved. Plans for a “human rights and fundamental freedoms Union”, a “European democracy/republic” and the like, would be sidelined.

Most citizens were grudgingly convinced over the necessity of austerity policies—however ineffective—to preserve their longer-term interests. Even the much-tested Greeks opted for a third bailout when offered the effective choice between a [disorderly] exit from the euro and a new round of austerity.

That degree of popular consent may not exist for the issues of migration. The reason is two-fold: (i) in relative terms, the architecture around Schengen is not as central to the EU as is the EMU, and (ii) migration entails social-cultural changes that have profound effects on the fibre of local communities.

National interests take precedence over solidarity

Migration is not merely about the relocation of people, nor can it be examined in purely technical terms as “labour mobility” or something of the sort. The integration of third country nationals into society means that every area of policy is ultimately affected. Not every nation is prepared or indeed willing to proceed along that path. Even Western European states that are familiar with multiculturalism tend to adopt a restrictive policy outlook. Central and Eastern European countries that are much more socially homogeneous than their peers are even more cautious on the matter.

It thus is no surprise that the notion of EU-wide binding quotas for the relocation of asylum seekers is perceived by some as a top-down edict to introduce multiculturalism through the back door. With its initiative to call for a referendum on migration, the Hungarian government shows that questions regarding legitimacy will be raised. Perhaps other states will do the same, as they did follow Hungary’s lead in closing their borders.

The fact that every Member State prioritises its own agenda reveals a certain attitude: that of expecting that Europe can live without “shared sovereignty” over the areas of policy that concern migrants and refugees. Whether this is good for Europe as a whole, or for entry countries such as Greece and Italy, is not a matter of great consideration. Intergovernmental Europe is by default geared towards a compromise between conflicting national interests rather than promoting the common good. If consensus cannot be reached, then the interests of the majority of states will be served, even if that entails having to place the burden of adjustment on the most vulnerable parts of the system.

The EU will remain weak

The gist of all this is that the EU is yet again proving too cumbersome and ill prepared for acting in a timely and effective fashion. Against the backdrop of deep divisions between its members, the European Council will not be able to produce one of its typical grand bargains for addressing the issue, at least not before a whole range of ad hoc measures is introduced while the crisis is left unchecked to run its destructive course.

Still, the fact remains that the present challenges can only be tackled by concerted action between European nations. It is a dangerous folly to think that uncoordinated efforts from national governments will prove sufficient in delivering an overall positive result. In the absence of a collective response the outcomes will always be suboptimal, if not calamitous.

For all of its shortcomings the EU remains the most credible platform for reaching a sensible agreement between European countries. While a considerable amount of time has been wasted, not all hope is lost. Solutions do exist and will inevitably have to incorporate elements of a plan for the introduction of a Union-based external border control authority, a semi-automatic system for determining the country that processes asylum requests, as well as a framework for sharing the responsibility of hosting newcomers to Europe.

The EU as such may not be in a position to solve the problems in Syria and elsewhere. It can however do whatever is within its power to correct its own flaws. What remains to be determined is whether the Union is capable of proceeding without the need to render void anything of what it has achieved hitherto. Chances are that some parts of the acquis will have to go, with the Schengen Agreement in its current form being the most likely candidate.