Europe strains under the pressure of migrant crisis

Published: Nov 2015

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Following the Grexit dilemma and increasing worries over Russian aggression, Europe now has another contentious issue to tackle: the migrant crisis. Given its threat to EU relations and integration, amongst serious moral concerns, the continent is certainly feeling the strain.

The character of Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, proclaimed: “You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s going to do it?” The famous lines regarding the need for military support might just as easily have been referring to the manner in which the EU has been dealing with the refugee crisis. The difference however is that if it was a script, the majority surely would have expected Europe to be coping better.

Many a politician and voter argue that Europe should face the reality that the continent can’t handle the stream of migrants arriving on its shores and close the borders to asylum seekers. German leader Angela Merkel disputed this, but did so in an arguably un-convincing manner: “It cannot be that Europe says, ‘We can’t handle this’.” Many others agree with her, however.

European chasms

Unfortunately, it seems that it will be very hard to remedy the situation within a short time frame – in spite of the justifiable moral outrage. Europe has attempted to get a grip of the situation, but the agreements reached so far are just the first steps in what will be a problem for politicians to deal with for years to come. And with European nations still very much divided as to how best to address these concerns, it is likely that we will witness many highly-strung summits during which it may appear that Europe is coming apart at the seams.

Indeed, frictions are already there for all to see. The decision during September’s European Union (EU) summit to overrule opponents by a method called qualified majority voting (QMV) on the contentious issue of the forced relocation of refugees was unprecedented. By the four countries that voted against, the move was perceived as an assault on their sovereignty.

ECR Research predict that a dangerous rift could appear between the east and west of the EU. It’s very easy to depict the central and eastern European nations as xenophobes – and that is exactly the assumption we are seeing many in western parts of Europe making. However, this is about far more than mere fear and, as a result of many in the west failing to understand that, tensions could well increase further still.

A problematic history

To understand where the eastern Europeans are coming from, this quote, reported by Politico, from a senior EU official who has spent years living in Eastern Europe, offers some insight: “It’s taken countries like the UK 40 years to adjust to a diverse society. Football fans were throwing bananas at black players in the 1970s. These countries [in the east] have had to transition from communism, try to catch up with the west and now in the space of a few months compress 40 years of inclusion into their societies.”

Europe has attempted to get a grip of the situation, but the agreements reached so far are just the first steps in what will be a problem for politicians to deal with for years to come.

Amongst all of this, one thing is guaranteed: the EU has come under great additional strain as it is still haunted by two other major crises from the past couple of years – the Grexit drama and mounting Russian aggression. These three crises have, in turn, threatened the three founding pillars of the European integration project: the Eurozone, the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU and the passport free Schengen Zone. In the words of Cornelius Adebahr, a researcher for Carnegie, these three encompass the very core of nation states: “Taxes, armies, and residence.”

Europe will not be able to sweep these daunting challenges under the rug. The Eurozone may be out of the darkest and most dangerous woods, but it’s not on peaceful pastures. Creditors still need to agree on debt restructuring for Greece and how to deal with the worryingly high unemployment numbers in many countries.

Concerning the foreign policy and security challenges, things have quietened down quite a bit in the eastern parts of Ukraine, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for Putin throwing in the towel. The Russian leader will try to profit from Europe’s divided nature of late and the chances are that he will succeed (some analysts even suggest that Putin may be upping the ante in Syria in order to drive even more Syrian refugees to Europe and destabilise the continent). When it comes to the most urgent challenge to the EU – the refugee crisis – Europe had better be well-prepared as the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa show no signs of abating anytime soon.

What does the future hold?

It isn’t all bad news, however. In reading and analysing leading research from European experts, we get the sense that Europe should not be written off too soon. All of the doom and gloom about the region unravelling is premature. It is most likely that Europe will get a grip of the refugee crisis – eventually. But not before it has seriously damaged relations between EU members and complicated the matter of addressing other issues like deepening Eurozone integration and countering Putin’s actions.

To end with another famous line from Jack Nicholson, this time from the great crime thriller The Departed: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” The EU would very much like to be in the same position. But it still is a long, long way from that enviable spot and, whilst it may seem like the plot for a thrilling film, it is a reality that the continent and its political leaders must now face head on.

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