Europe needs leadership to address the refugee crisis

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I am aware that, from the point of legality, the concepts of “refugee” and “migrant” should not be used interchangeably. However and as the ongoing crisis shows, the conditions on the ground as well as the forces that drive this mass movement of populations make such distinctions pedantic and practically meaningless. Human beings are fleeing failed states, war zones, natural disasters, in search for a better life in Europe; a life that Europeans can well afford to offer.

The response of the European Union to the influx of refugees and migrants has been a spectacular failure. As with the [ongoing] euro crisis, official Europe’s misguided inter-governmentalist tenet of “common rules without common politics” is hampering any effort for sensible and timely policy response to a pressing issue.

The Dublin III regulation which establishes “the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection”, is effectively rendered void. Further, the Schengen agreement is gradually yet steadily being eroded by the [sometimes silent] introduction of border controls.

EU institutions have little power at their disposal, given that this area of policy rests in the hands of national governments. The result is a divide between governments that are more open to multiculturalism and those that remain suspicious of it.

In the absence of a genuinely European government that could pursue a federal policy in line with the principle of subsidiary, agreements between Member States are the only means by which a common policy may be adopted.

Such agreements are contingent on a common understanding for addressing the issue at hand, which means that somehow the opposing views on cultural diversity have to be reconciled. While the debate on binding quotas may prove to be fecund, I think that there are a couple of issues that require closer attention:

  1. the necessary economic stimulus to support the integration of refugees and migrants;
  2. the open debate on the respect for the fundamental values of the Union as enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.

With regard to the former, we will have to once again deal with the kind of uneconomic austerity obsession that has in fact exacerbated the downturn, deepening and lengthening the economic shocks in the euro area. As concerns the latter, we need to see how the inter-governmental mode of governance will manage to overcome its own opaque bargaining methods in an effort to make Member States comply with their legal and normative obligations.

Alas, we depend on inter-state relations that are not robust to abuse, either with respect to the balance of power therein, or the opportunistic narratives of hegemonism/subjugation that surround them. The European Union as such, the “federal level” so to speak, is close to powerless on the matter.

As is clear from European Parliament resolutions such as this one (2012/2130(INI)), the EU has no means to ensure the continued compliance of a Member State with the criteria it had to conform with prior to its accession to the Union: the Copenhagen criteria. As is noted in that text:

  1. Reiterates the urgent need to tackle the so-called ‘Copenhagen dilemma’, whereby the EU remains very strict with regard to compliance with the common values and standards on the part of candidate countries but lacks effective monitoring and sanctioning tools once they have joined the EU;

Official Europe’s failures are somewhat mitigated by the concerted efforts of activists and citizens across the countries affected by the issue. Those people are paragons of altruism and should be the guide for policy-makers.

Instead of remaining trapped in endless blame games, Europe’s political leadership has to find a solution, even if that means circumventing the over-exaggerated concerns of some of its members.

The inability to reach a pan-European policy response should not appear as an insurmountable obstacle. Leaders must overcome their taboos and forge a coalition of the willing. In practice this means to proceed with “enhanced cooperation” among the governments that are eager and able to provide support, shelter and a fresh start to those in need, be it refugees or migrants.

European leadership is an historical imperative. No institutional shortcomings can be presented as an excuse.