What future for the European Union?

Article published on Jan. 25, 2016
Article published on Jan. 25, 2016

After almost five years of proxy war in Syria and the escalation of the terrorist group ISIL, a major crisis was triggered in the European Union. Refugees, controlled borders and disunion are at the centerpiece of the Union. Will Europe be able to uphold its social and moral values?

The Syrian war and the continuous violence in Yemen and throughout the Middle East have been putting the European Union under preassure when it comes to principles like solidarity and unanimity. Both World Wars and later the Yugoslav wars have displaced countless people, unleashing a massive flux of migration towards Europe. No immigration wave has ever been bigger than what we are witnessing nowadays in the old continent.

According to the European Commission, 147,000 migrants arrived in the EU during the first semester of 2015 and 890,000 others arrived in the course of the second semester, mostly from Greece and Italy. During this dangerous journey, many have died at sea while others are exposed to criminal networks of smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea. Since the beginning of 2016, records from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that 31,244 migrants and refugees have arrived in Greece by sea. Martin Schulz, the German President of the European Parliament acknowledged that the threat of terrorism and the ongoing refugee crisis is testing the EU’s resilience in matters of solidity and stability. Furthermore, Mr Schulz admitted: “Nobody knows what we are facing this year.”

Schengen: on the verge of breaking down?

Besides Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria and France have temporarily reintroduced border controls with the main purpose of limiting the influx of refugees. Only France has closed its borders in connection to security reasons, while the other countries have done so due to migratory flows. Meanwhile, Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos characterised the development of the refugees’ crisis as worse than before. Feelings of xenophobia are rising amongst EU countries paving a dangerous way to a possible disintegration – which has already been materialized in the form of walls, barbed-wired fences and borders’ control.  

The Commission is working on a set of measures to better deal with this galloping crisis. To begin with, the relocation scheme will be reassessed as many countries - mainly the Visegrad group - have expressed disapproval and unwillingness to participate in the quota system. The Dublin Regulation, which states that migrants must request asylum in the first EU country they reach, is on the table for further review, as most EU delegates have finally admitted the Regulation’s failure. In addition, a common list of safe countries is under elaboration, to determine the priority of each asylum request. Also, the establishment of hotspots to help heavily burdened countries, like Italy and Greece, to cope with the daily flux of refugees has been set up. However, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy MEP Laura Ferrara accused the lack of efficiency of these “helping points”: “In Italy the hotspots are not working, the identification process is too slow. People whose asylum requests were rejected had neither been helped nor accompanied back to the border” she added.

Disunity in the Union

The uproar is still alive and kicking amongst Member States (and European Economic Area members), and countries like Denmark and Switzerland (EEA) are prompting international condemnation. At stake is the confiscation of refugees’ money and jewelry by the authorities in these two host countries.  On the 26th of January, the Danish government will vote a bill on this matter, which has shown a tremendous internal popularity amongst lawmakers. As for Switzerland, the confiscated money will be used to support the cost of asylum applications. According to POLITICO, Swiss migration authority SEM has explained “If someone leaves voluntarily within seven months this person can get the money back and take it with them. Otherwise the money covers costs they generate.”

Nonetheless, under preparatory phase in the Parliament is a legislative proposal which resolution aims “to suspend the obligations of Sweden as a Member State of relocation for the period of one year”. Sweden's formal request was made at the beginning of December 2015. Both Sweden and Germany are the top preferences for the asylum seekers, but while Angela Merkel’s policies on migration have been rather friendly (at least until the events of New Year’s Eve in Cologne). Sweden, still bound to relocate over 5000 persons to its territory, has been trying to slash the refugee’s arrival in the country. Even though Merkel has been criticised in Germany for being very tolerant, the Director of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) William Lacy Swing has expressed his deep admiration for Merkel with regards to her solidary and compassionate stance towards refugees.

Overall, the EU has been facing a major existential challenge since its foundation. With the immigration crisis at its borders, the rise of Euroscepticism in influential countries such as the UK and France, and the Greek tragedy threatening to withdraw from the Union, European leaders have much to worry about. Still, the urgent matter now is to deal with the thousands of refugees knocking at our doors and to find a smooth way of relocating them within the appropriate conditions. Rows and disputes have been splitting the Union and undermining its capacity of action; however, all EU Member States have the duty to uphold Europe’s values and principles. If not Europe, who will help the refugees? As the Gulf States are not taking in any refugees, it is up to Europe, in cooperation with third parties to guarantee the dignity and welfare of these human beings running from war and conflict.