"European governments have proved to have an almost unlimited talent for making fools of themselves on an issue that can be tackled only by all of them together."
Jan Techau (Director of Carnegie Europe)
We have seen Europe making a fool of itself at regular intervals and the current refugee crisis has been another example of leaders failing to unite for what's clearly a problem that cannot be resolved with national policies alone. Many politicians and voters with them appear to think that Europe can close the blinders to the world and be left alone within its prosperous, peaceful bubble. But the outside world has imposed itself with a thud on Europe in the shape of Russian aggression and refugees literally washing up on European shores. These kinds of (geo)political issues shape and possibly poison the relations between European states, impose stress on European institutions and national policy making and affect the national mood and elections within EU countries.
The refugee crisis is not as simple as a debate between racist, isolationist, Eurosceptic xenophobes pitted against humane, welcoming, pro-EU citizens. To quote the journalist Janet Daley from the British newspaper The Telegraph: "The people I have met who express most alarm about taking in migrants are neither racist nor inhumane: they are simply aware of the pressures on their hospitals... and of shortages of housing and school places. These are not callous excuses for xenophobia. They are grown-up responsible concerns which deserve a fair hearing."
No end in sight
Moreover, even if Europe finds a way to share the burden of refugees, the crisis won't abate as long as the civil wars and conflicts rage on in North Africa and the Middle East and the political and economic challenges intensify in the Balkans. Some argue that the European Common Foreign and Security Policy is a mess and therefore it's an illusion to think that Europe can have a meaningful impact on what's happening in the MENA region and the Balkans. They are largely right, although the EU could and would be able to influence reforms in the Balkans, because the countries over there would love to join the EU. But still, if Europe would get its CFSP on track, it's abilities to alter the course of conflicts in the MENA region will be limited as long as the willingness and capacities are lacking to keep warring parties apart by putting boots on the ground. Even if this would be achieved, Iraq and Afghanistan have proven how awfully wrong things could go.
The conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq won't be resolved anytime soon. To the contrary, in Syria it looks like Russia is getting ready to prop up the Assad regime which could lead to increased fighting and casualties. And Gulf Arab nations are expanding the ground war in Yemen. In addition, the situation in other countries of origin of African refugees will not improve either in the short to medium term. EU foreign policy or no EU common policy, people will be trying to flee to safety and food from these countries for a long time to come and Europe needs to find a way to deal with this certainty.
United or divided?
European Council President Donald Tusk recently said that he had the impression that the European project had drifted too much towards political daydreaming and too far from real life. Aylan Kurdi and over 70 dead bodies inside an abandoned truck have force-fed a dose of reality to the EU. Nonetheless, some of that political daydreaming is necessary to find a way out of the current impasse. Europe can only address the refugee crisis if it does it in a united way.
For now, political tensions and stress on the welfare state will play into the hands of Eurosceptic, anti-immigration parties. They could reap these rewards soon during elections scheduled to be held in a handful of European nations in the months ahead. Moreover, if Europe fails to reign in the refugee crisis, the issue could prove an important factor in the Brexit debate. If Brits get the feeling that the EU is messing up and is forcing the UK to take in more migrants than it feels it can handle, anti-European feelings could surge. Already, a new poll suggests that more of its citizens would vote to leave than stay in the EU.
To end on a positive note, there's no question that with its aging societies, the EU will be in dire need of immigrants in the coming years to decades to keep welfare systems sustainable and economies humming along. If the refugee crisis works as a catalyst to enact reforms needed to deal with an influx of migrants, the current struggles could prove beneficial in the end.