Europe divided over refugee crisis

The reality we now witness forces us all to reassess this perception, and conclude that Europe has so far failed its ‘biggest test since WWII’.

Thousands of Syrian refugees walked from Budapest in Hungary to the German-Austrian border
Thousands of Syrian refugees walked from Budapest in Hungary to the German-Austrian border

As the death toll mounts in what has been described as “Europe’s biggest test since World War Two”, it is becoming difficult to escape the notion of a Europe torn apart by internal dissent regarding the Mediterranean refugee crisis.

In a week when the world was heartbroken by the sight of a lifeless Syrian toddler lying face-down on a Turkish beach – a truly gut-wrenching visual correlative for the untold horror of that country’s civil war, and the perils of flight to ‘safety’ – the messages sent out by European leaders have all been discordant. 

Last Wednesday Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker dismissed calls for a pan-European summit on migration, arguing that: “We don’t need a new summit. Member states have to adopt the European measures and apply them to their territory…”

Juncker does have a point: what is needed in the face of such a tragedy is certainly not ‘more discussion’, but more action. But this only points towards the root cause of the current dilemma. ‘Taking action’ requires agreement among all parties: and it is Europe’s failure to agree internally that has stalled the ‘action’ he now calls for.

Moreover, it is debatable whether these ‘European measures’ would suffice to address the sheer scale of the crisis… even if all EU member states contributed equally to their implementation. Earlier this year the EU ‘agreed’ on an action plan to tackle the central Mediterranean route by targeting human trafficking operations off the Libyan coast.

Given the dramatic spike in deaths associated with this crossing since then, it is clear that the EU’s strategy – as predicted all along by humanitarian NGOs – has not only failed to stem the influx at source, but also made the voyage more dangerous for the desperate people involved.

Would the success rate have been higher had more EU member states participated? Perhaps, but the real question is another. One cannot possibly hope to address a problem of this magnitude by focusing only on the tail end of the entire phenomenon. This is an issue that goes beyond the sort of militaristic approach the Commission has so far favoured. It requires a rethink of Europe’s entire policy… and that can only be achieved (if at all) by going back to the drawing board. 

Even so, there is no guarantee that member states would comply with any new policy plan… just as many did not comply with the existing one. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently reminded us, so far only five member states have shouldered their European responsibilities for refugee resettlement.

“[…] so many refugees are arriving at our external borders that we can’t leave Italy or Greece alone to deal with this task,” she said. “At the same time, if we say that Italy and Greece can’t be left alone with this task, then neither can it be that three countries, like Sweden, Austria and Germany, are left alone with the lion’s share of the task.”

It was in the middle of this already confused scenario that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his Italian counterpart Matteo Renzi called for a ‘global approach’ to the problem.

“It is not about a solution found by an individual country,” Muscat said, “but about Europe coming together with countries of origin, transit and destination. Malta is doing its best to support Italy in its rescue operations, but this is not the end solution. Europe has to give money, resources and legal means by which they can access Europe.” 

Again, one is inclined to agree with the Prime Minister on the basics – i.e., that this is no job for a single country to handle, and that maritime rescue operations alone cannot solve the problem in the larger scale – but it takes us no closer to the European consensus that would be required for this approach to become reality. 

Muscat is also right in pointing out that legal means should be provided for refugees to gain asylum in Europe: something all people have a right to according to the European Charter of Human Rights. Yet while the Maltese government now espouses this principle, other EU member states have firmly resisted the idea of issuing humanitarian visas for refugees.

Granting refugees and people seeking refuge a safe and legal passage to Europe will not stem the problem but at least people will no longer need to risk their lives as they flee war, famine and economic and social deprivation.

This forces us to question what Europe’s priorities really are when faced with an appalling human tragedy. Providing such visas would not ‘solve’ the problem in its totality… but it could save thousands of lives. By resisting such an initiative, Europe is only making the case that border policies are worth more than human lives… even the lives of little children.  

The upshot of all these mixed messages is that people are losing faith in Europe’s political commitment to ever rise above its internal disagreements for long enough to actually do anything about any given problem. And Europe cannot afford to lose this trust without also losing a core part of its own identity.

Apart from a political and economic project, the European Union was all along conceived to also be a union of countries sharing common beliefs and principles. The reality we now witness forces us all to reassess this perception, and conclude that Europe has so far failed its ‘biggest test since WWII’.

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