The EU’s ‘annus horribilis’

This is the biggest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the EU, yet the world’s richest continent has proved woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to live up to its own stated mission of guaranteeing basic, fundamental human rights. 

(Photo: Chris Mangion)
(Photo: Chris Mangion)

2015 has so far been an ‘annus horribilis’ for the European Union. It started with the Greek debt crisis, which saw the ailing member state’s creditors – led by Europe’s powerhouse, Germany – bully a democratically-elected leftist government into submission by threatening to ‘temporarily’ expel Greece from the Eurozone.

Next came the Syrian refugee crisis, which has exposed gaping divisions in Europe’s supposed hegemony: whilst also underscoring the EU’s evident inability to deal with what is ultimately a human tragedy.

This is the biggest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the EU, yet the world’s richest continent has proved woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to live up to its own stated mission of guaranteeing basic, fundamental human rights. 

In his state of the union speech, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted the EU is getting less European and less united. Indeed, it seems to be unravelling before our eyes.

In a week that has seen borders between EU member states closed, as well as the wholesale suspension of freedom of movement – one of the four basic freedoms of the EU – it has become evident that the structures of the EU are vulnerable to the politics of fear: the supposedly inviolable principles upon which the EU was founded are, in fact, very easily subverted in times of crisis.

But it is the increasingly evident inability to formulate a common, EU-wide policy to confront this emergency that has exposed the union as divided and fragmented.

Following marathon emergency talks, the European Council this week agreed to make billions of euros available for emergency assistance for the most affected EU countries, the World Food Program, countries neighbouring Syria and other aid programmes.

This follows weeks of bickering between EU states, most of which were intent only on minimising their own intake of refugees according to an agreed voluntary resettlement programme. 

To this day, the EU remains unable to find permanent solutions to the idiosyncrasies of its border policies, and the inherent injustice of its treaties: for instance, the Dublin convention which saddles external border countries with disproportionate responsibility.

This has not only exposed the EU’s fractured nature, but also highlighted a deeper identity crisis. The EU is at its best when it comes together to talk about creating funds and hammering out economic policies. However, this near absolute unity starts to falter when it comes to discussing things like solidarity and “responsibility sharing.” And it disappears altogether when coping with a humanitarian crisis that demands an effective, collective response.

Admittedly, the bureaucratic monster that is the EU is distinctly sluggish in taking decisions at any level. But the EU’s tardiness in deciding how to react to the humanitarian crisis tells us more about the bloc’s internal divisions and incongruences, than about its cumbersome bureaucracy and Byzantine structures.

The EU’s disjointed and antagonistic response has now resulted in the world’s richest continent treating humans seeking shelter from war and social depravation as some kind of plague. This jars discordantly with the EU’s habit of admonishing other countries over such issues as human rights records, undermining the bloc’s pretensions as a moral standard bearer for the world. 

As things stand, the only silver lining in the present scenario is that Germany has in some ways redeemed itself by showing strong leadership in opening up its doors and making refugees welcome.

Germany’s ‘willkommenskultur’ might be seen as short sighted in some quarters, but it has also shown that the people of Europe are more welcoming than their politicians evidently assume. In fact, the national populations of various European countries often compensated for their government’s insensitivity.

This is significant, as it suggests that Europe’s current malaise is not incurable. There is a growing demand for a different, more humane European Union: and in an environment where politics are dictated (albeit retrospectively) by popular demand, this may be an encouraging thought.

Naturally, it will not be easy. There are surely limits to how many migrants any society can accept in such short periods without proper management. But Europe can and should receive many more refugees and ‘economic migrants’ than it is currently admitting.

Space has never been an issue. Neither has the economy. If anything Europe needs more workers to sustain the social welfare system. This is a matter of putting solidarity before electoral exigencies. It is a question of redefining Europe’s borders, identity and sense of belonging in an increasingly globalised world.

Building walls and bolstering security on the outside borders is not the answer, and only epitomises the political failure of Europe to find long-term solutions. 

The present crisis is not, after all, unique: in the absence of legal and safe access to protection, Europe will be faced with a similar situation every time war or unrest hits neighbouring regions. What is needed, then, is not a stop-gap solution to a one-off event; but a system that can effectively respond to all such crises when they occur.

This can only be achieved if Europe undertakes to create the more humane EU so many dream of. Today’s tolerance boundaries are after all not set in stone; they will change with time, context and leadership. 

Fear can always be trumped by dignity.