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European Disunion

News & Features | October 12, 2015

Last year, the United Nations reported that the total number of displaced people in the world had skyrocketed to 51.2 million, a higher count than any time since World War II. The steady upward climb of worldwide displacement has been matched by increasingly large waves of migrants and refugees—many fleeing wars and endemic economic strife in North Africa and the Middle East—seeking refuge in Europe. Often, they are forced to cross the Mediterranean Sea, a dangerous endeavor that has already cost more than 2,600 lives, in order to reach points of entry into the European Union like Italy, Greece, and Spain. Migrants then continue their journey north to more wealthy countries such as Germany in hopes of finding refuge. In the midst of the crisis, the European Union has been hard pressed to come up with a regulatory system capable of handling the surge in migration and taking into account the concerns of its member states.

On September 22, the European Union voted, against the protests of four of its eastern countries, to impose quotas requiring all member states to take in newcomers. Yet the EU’s decision to require more states to accept a share of refugees is not as noble and humanitarian as it might appear on face value. The EU does not have much of a choice but to let people in as they appear on the shores. Further, this plan tests the power of the EU over its member states. It has created controversy over the ideology of the balance of justice and security, as well as the of state solidarity within the supranational organization.

From afar, this plan seems like a logical move for the EU. Instead of relying on larger states to accept those that they can and leaving the remaining refugees displaced, the plan requires smaller states to also take in people. Yet it has been controversial within the EU, partly because of their ideological balance between justice and security. Security fears arise from the lack of screening these refugees receive before their entrance into the EU territory and sometimes stem fears of terrorism. As former British foreign minister David Miliband remarked, “People want to see both compassion and competence from the EU, and those two things should not be at odds.” Although security fears are justified, they might be misplaced; many of the refugees are fleeing from terrorist groups, as a refugee named Homom lamented to The New York Times: “Here is a big problem. If I work with ISIS, the Iraqi Army will kill me. If I work with the Army, ISIS will kill me. What can I do?” These refugees are clearly not terrorists if they are in fact fleeing the terrorists at home.

Technical issues also plague the current plan. While the new regulatory system imposes quotas for how many refugees each country must accept, it does not provide any plan for keeping the refugees in their assigned country. Given the option, many refugees would prefer to go travel to Germany rather than stay in a smaller and less affluent country to which they were assigned. Most importantly, though, this plan was accepted without full consensus of all the countries in the EU; the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia all voted against it. As a result, the repercussions of this plan will be seen not only in individual states struggling to take in refugees, but also in the EU as a whole, as member states contend about the balance of justice and power as well as their own solidarity.

In the summer of 2014, Angela Merkel was confronted by neo-Nazi marches rising in Dresden, Germany. These non-violent marches voiced anti-refugee sentiment and criticized Germany’s relatively welcoming policy towards migrants. Although the marches died off months later, the sentiment still festers, and not just in Germany. Fears of terrorism have driven countries like France to attempt formal assimilation procedures, including the banning of the burqa, instead of more widely accepted integration procedures. Turkey, which borders Syria, has taken in two million refugees, of which 260,000 are actually in refugee camps. To add to the disorder, Turkey has recently attempted to control the movements of Syrians within the country, a reflection of the anti-refugee sentiments of an overwhelmed state. It can be assumed that individual state sentiments towards refugees may not be entirely positive as they take in more and more migrants following the statement of the EU plan.

Some states, like Greece, initially welcomed refugees. Because of its location on the Mediterranean coastline, Greece is point of entry into the EU for many refugees. NGO outposts staffed by volunteers receive these refugees and provide access to basic humanitarian services like bathrooms and food.

In recent months, though, the general European attitude towards refugees has turned negative. Already dealing with the stress of political and economic rupture, Greece has especially felt the weight of the refugees. In The New Yorker article “An Island of Refugees,” a volunteer named Jenni working at a parking lot with nearly 500 people recalls a vague threat from a policeman: “If this situation [in the parking lot] continues, there will be a big problem in Molyvos.” The sentiments towards migrants and refugees have turned increasingly hostile, and given fresh security fears in many European states and economic unrest with the Euro, it is unlikely that these sentiments will improve with the new EU plan. Members of the EU are already feeling the weight of the refugees and are unsure of how they will be able to take more people without provoking domestic unrest.

These internal sentiments are likely to influence relations between individual European states and the European Union. Although the European Union was founded to deal with situations like this, it has lost much legitimacy because of the Euro crisis. Now, according to former Italian ambassador Stefano Stefanini speaking to the New York Times, this refugee crisis “risks bursting the EU at its weak seams…[and with Tuesday’s vote] the cleavages only get deeper.” Issues regarding the Euro and high unemployment combined with the Greek bailout have already shown fractures within the European Union. Furthermore, fractures can be seen in the recent restitution of border controls by some countries because of security fears brought up by the influx of refugees. The reinstitution of border controls contradicts the passport-free zone that exists within the EU’s borders. States are likely acting counter to this because the outer borders are not secure, and thus they feel they must move independently to secure their own.

On top of this, the four states that voted to oppose the plan see it as infringing on state solidarity. Although joining the EU was an agreement to give up a degree of sovereignty for the common good of Europe, the backlash from these four states represents fractures in the ideology of the EU. While the current plan improves on the previous lack of coordination, it also raises concerns about the competency of a union undermined by growing tensions.