In February last year I wrote an article titled "Is Immigration The EU's Death Knell?" Writing it then, I thought that the looming migrant crisis would cause tensions within the Union that might be hard to bear. However, the title was mainly used for effect. I didn't imagine it would get this bad. I didn't foresee barbed wire fences going up between EU countries; the suspension of Schengen; and the extreme polarisation and name calling between different blocks. It's all much worse than I had imagined.
This time the EU's favourite response to crises - extend and pretend - is unlikely to work. Action will need to be taken, and relatively quickly. But speed and agility are not exactly the EU's greatest strengths.
So far, responses have ranged from the xenophobic to the thoughtless to the banal. Some Eastern European states have declared that they will do their part but that they will only accept Christians. Helpful. Merkel's desire, after the Greek debacle, for Germany to appear human indulged her habit of making policy on the hoof (remember the overnight pledge to decommission all nuclear plants following Fukushima?) She effectively declared wide-open borders and a welcome to all and sundry. Heartfelt and genuine though her position might have been, it predictably resulted in a mass dash towards Germany and the whole of Northern Europe leading to rebellion by the Länder and, eventually, suspension of the Schengen open borders. Some UK politicians specialised in the banal - from offering to house refugees in their own homes (not several million of them I assume) to making statements about the need for Britain to be more welcoming without clarifying what that might mean in practice - and in the long term.
The European Commission (EC) revived its plan for compulsory quotas only to have it slapped down again by Interior Ministers from Member States. Germany and France have been made to understand that, when push comes to shove - and when the issue is important enough domestically, other Member States may refuse to behave like their feudal serfs. Like all self-respecting autocrats, they responded by threatening to withhold funds from those who refused to do as they're told. Yet, even if it can be pushed through, the EC's plan will not make much of a dent in the numbers of refugees that will continue to flee war and persecution. Well, maybe this does fit the extend and pretend model after all.
To be sure, it is not straightforward to find a workable approach to an issue that represents a massive humanitarian tragedy, a political minefield, and near unmanageable practical issues. Yet clarity about a few overarching principles should help craft an approach that, while not pretending to provide a perfect solution might move us to something more workable than the current free-for-all.
First it needs to be made clear that this is not an exclusively European problem. Europe might be the wealthy region that is most geographically proximal to the issue. However, the problems in the Middle East are not exclusively Made in Europe. The United States and many other countries also have responsibilities. The debate and search for a solution must therefore be widened beyond the European sphere. Other countries, including prosperous Middle Eastern countries, must contribute to the alleviation of the suffering to which their own foreign policies have contributed. Spreading the effort to provide asylum across the globe rather than just within Europe will make the issue more manageable.
Second, the British government's position that this issue is best tackled at source needs to be taken seriously. Screening refugees in, or as close as possible to, their countries of origin and providing safe passage to host countries (and not just European ones) from there have many advantages. It would encourage people to stay put if that increases their chances of being granted asylum. It would decrease the tragic loss of life that is happening as boatloads of people embark on perilous and often fatal journeys across the waters. It would decrease the difficulty of repatriation for those not eligible for asylum. It would cut off a growing source of business for people smugglers. And it might, just might, stop the erection of yet more barbed wire fences and new border controls across Europe.
Finally, it is becoming clear that European countries need to do better at finding ways to integrate what will inevitably become a growing immigrant population. Multiculturalism has failed and more thought and effort needs to be put into managing an influx of people from other cultures with different expectations and beliefs. Otherwise we are headed towards an issue that will become divisive and may well turn violent.
Of course, the final solution would be to bring peace and stability to the Middle East. We can all dream.