Tag Archives: European Union

The Sky is Not Falling on the European Union

This is a difficult time to be an optimist in Brussels. It is even more challenging to advocate for a positive look at European affairs. And it becomes almost impossible to talk about collective hopes for a more united Europe in the future. Many will say such optimism belongs to another epoch. Now, the dominant discourse is one that announces a new catastrophe every week. Like Chicken Little, these so-called realists shout, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

As a contrarian, I want to maintain faith in the European project. And be inspired by a forward-looking approach. The best way to build a prosperous and safe future for all of us in Europe is through a united endeavor.  I say it whilst realizing the European Union is at present facing two major crises. They crowd everything else off the agenda, giving strong arguments to pessimists and those who are against continuing the Union. I mean a possible Brexit and the realities of mass migrations.

Challenging the Unity of the European Union

With the UK spinning further away from common approaches and policies, arguments for integration and joint responses have indeed become more fragile. In effect, such arguments are practically inaudible because many leaders prefer to focus their attention on their own national agendas. The silence of most of them on the affairs of the European Union is deafening.

The UK´s position has brought a lot of uncertainty to the table. At this stage, nobody can predict the outcome of their referendum. It is also difficult to forecast the consequences of a Brexit for the future of the European Union.

Nevertheless, the European Union would survive a Brexit. Why? Because the UK and the other member states have already learned to go their own separate ways in many areas – the Euro, Schengen, labour laws, justice, and internal security, just to mention a few.  Perhaps the biggest worry is what a Brexit would do to the British themselves, to the status of Scotland, as well as to their tiny neighbor to the west, Ireland.

Brexit or not, the European Union shouldn´t be too worried.

The larger question is about immigration. Can the European Union survive a continued and expanding mass migration crisis? Many believe it cannot. We keep hearing that without a solution to the current migratory flows, the European Union will soon collapse. There is a good degree of exaggeration in the air. The soothsayers of disaster easily capture the headlines. Obviously, the mass arrival of refugees and migrants does pose major challenges and it is essential to recognize this. It is a situation well out of control. Furthermore, this crisis shakes the key foundations of the Union, its values and the role of Europe in the international arena.

More importantly, the migration issue touches the core of a vital dimension of European states—the question of national identity. The people of Europe have shown that they are ready to give away a good number of their sovereign prerogatives, accepting that Brussels can deal with them. This has been the case in a wide range of areas related to economic management, budgets, agriculture, trade, environment, justice, development aid, external relations and other important matters.

Yet, they are not at all prepared to abdicate or dilute their national features, language and everything else that creates a people´s identity. Nor should they. Europe is a complex mosaic of languages, cultures, nationalities and even prejudices. Yes, our views of our neighbours are still shaped by prejudices in significant ways. History and many wars have both divided us and created the diverse assortment we are today. Patriotism is still, and will continue to be for a good while longer, far stronger than pan-Europeanism.

Seeing the Glass “Half Full”

All this must be taken into account. Populists are effective in doing just this, trying to gain the political advantage in the process by exploiting feelings of nationalism. It’s all a little more complicated for an optimist.

This reality notwithstanding, let´s be clear about the present crisis. Let´s imagine we had to face the current migratory instabilities and frictions that the migrations have created in a past context of separate nation states. We can readily assume that some of us would already be at war with our neighbours. We would see coalitions of countries taking military action against others, trying to defend their borders and their own perceived national interests. We would be responding to the threats facing us with weapons drawn upon one another. In the past, this challenge would lead to armed conflict and chaos. We know that the long history of Europe has been written through a succession of wars. 

Discussions between Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Walter Hallstein about the Treaty establishing the ECSC. Photo credit: www.cvce.eu
Discussions between Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Walter Hallstein about the Treaty establishing the ECSC. Photo credit: www.cvce.eu

This all changed when the European Union was established. Now, disputes are taken to summits. Summits come and go, often without many concrete outcomes. But, sooner or later, they end up producing acceptable results of one sort or another. We have learned to take the right decisions at the eleventh hour, that´s true. But we have done so around a conference table and through diplomacy. That´s the kind of lesson we should keep in mind as we get closer to two more summits on the migration crisis: one with Turkey, on the 7th of March and one among the European Union leaders on the 17th.

Let´s keep talking and pushing for an agreement. From the cacophony of diverse European voices and the play of varied interests, action will follow. The most relevant contribution of the pessimists, Eurosceptics and  nay-sayers has been to create a greater sense of urgency. Now, the optimists among us have to state that there is only one answer to the big question on the table: Do we allow this challenge to destroy the hard-won political and economic achievements of the European Union or do we build on these successes to constructively address this crisis and, in the process, strengthen our union?

I am convinced that realism that will prevail. The European sky isn’t falling.

 Victor AngeloVictor Angelo is a Portuguese columnist based in Brussels and a former Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General.

Flashpoint Europe: The Refugee Crisis and the Fate of the Union

It’s been a rough year for European unity, and it’s not getting any better. The sudden flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa is straining the unity of European Project more than any crisis in recent memory. The member states are divided and unable to agree on a common solution. Militarized borders are being reopened, refugee camps are being hastily erected, and armies are mobilizing, all echoing nightmares of an Old Europe and a time long thought to be in the past. The EU is at a pivotal moment: a crossroads which may determine the fate of the entire European project.

The refugee crisis has amplified the serious disagreements amongst Europeans about the roles of national sovereignty and cultural identity in the future of the European Union. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 200,000 refugees have arrived in Europe just in 2015, with over a million total asylum seekers estimated to be residing in the EU by the end of the year. With most of the refugees fleeing the embattled nations of Syria, Libya, and Iraq, there is a palpable fear in Europe that the influx of such a large number of Muslims will result in a spread of radicalism and a weakening of perceived national identities, spurred by the spread of homegrown terrorism already on the rise on the continent.

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not.

There are two sides that have taken diametrically opposed moral stances on the issue: One side,  comprised mostly of the EU-founding member nations of Western Europe, are citing humanitarian moral obligations and wish to see a pan-European solution to absorb the refugees and distribute them fairly throughout Europe. The second, comprised of the newer Eastern European members of the EU, are resisting allowing migrants to remain in their countries. These states, located on the periphery of the EU, are concerned about the political and economic shock that would come should the refugees stay, and are fearful of the perceived threat to their respective national identities if they absorb thousands of Arab Muslims.

Emergence of a Crisis

This summer, Italy cancelled the European Commission-funded Operation Mare Nostrum, an extensive maritime operation to provide safety for refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East. Without Italian ships dedicated to their rescue, many refugees are avoiding the perils of traveling on makeshift boats run by smugglers in favor of joining the already innumerable masses of Syrians and Iraqis escaping into Europe by the longer land route through Turkey. As a result, the western Balkans are receiving an ever increasing number of refugees as the Hungarian-Serbian border was seen as the main entry point through which they can travel to the more prosperous regions of the EU.

Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com
Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com

Hungary has since made clear its severest objections to the presence of refugees within its borders and has loudly criticized fellow EU members for disregarding their own rules regarding asylum seekers. The Dublin Regulation requires the first EU country in which a refugee enters to register them for asylum and to provide humanitarian assistance. This arrangement leaves Greece and Italy, the main points of entry by land and sea respectively, to provide these essential services to the bulk of the refugees. Italy is already hosting over 170,000 mostly North African refugees, and the vast majority of those traveling into the EU via Turkey should have remained in Greece. Greece however, has been overwhelmed and unable to support them. The European periphery, plagued already by high unemployment, unstable economies, and troubled governments, is in a precarious position and needs immediate relief from the rest of Europe even without the overwhelming presence of so many refugees.

The uncontrollable movement of refugees through the poorer regions of Europe has called into question the very notion of a border-less EU. The Schengen Area provides border checks only upon entry into member states, and allows free travel without passports between signatory states. In response to the deluge of migrants, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and the Netherlands have re-instituted border controls, with various other European nations considering similar actions. Hungary not only built a wall along the Serbian border, but is also considering (or already erecting) a fence on borders with EU members Croatia and Romania. As European states build walls between themselves, the idea of a border-less Europe is quite literally disappearing.

The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Experiment
The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Union.

Disunity in Action

The refugee crisis has reignited the debates about what it means to be European. While the more prosperous Western European states have been receiving large numbers of Muslim and Asian immigrants for decades, the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe have not. France and Germany, for example, have been the destinations of millions of migrants that have been assimilated to their respective cultures to varying degrees (although not without difficulty). The Eastern European members of the EU, however, are still nearly homogeneous, each comprised almost entirely of self-identified white Christian Europeans with no significant recent history of non-European migration.

The different national perceptions of identity politics between West and East is the crux of the problem. On 3 September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explicitly labelled the refugees a threat to Europe’s Christian identity, “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture… this is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity… is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?”  The prime minister sees multicultural France, with its large North African population, and Germany with its sizable Kurdish and Turkish minorities, as a warning to his fellow Eastern Europeans about what could happen if the refugees were allowed to stay. “We don’t want to be like them” he almost seems to say.

While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com
While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not. The EU has been slow to come to a consensus about how to handle the refugee crisis, resulting in member states taking action into their own hands, rather than relying on the cumbersome EU political process. After months of indecision, on 22 September the EU voted to institute a quota system that would distribute 120,000 refugees among member states. Framing the issue as a matter of national sovereignty, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania voted against the plan. As of 24 September, however, only Slovakia has refused to comply outright, threatening to sue the EU in court. Slovak prime minster Robert Fico was defiant, “As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.”

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past.

Eastern Europe is by no means united in response to the crisis. Croatia, which opened its borders to migrants on 16 September in response to Hungary’s completion of its fence along the Serbian border, closed them just two days later. In an almost schizophrenic reaction, Croatia began busing migrants to the (as of yet) unfenced Hungarian border. Responding to this action, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto stated, “Instead of honestly making provision for the immigrants, it sent them straight to Hungary. What kind of European solidarity is this?” Szijjarto captured the sentiment of disunity and made perhaps the most poignant comment regarding the issue, “Rather than respecting the laws in place in the E.U., they are encouraging the masses to break the law, because illegally crossing a border is breaking the law.” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović bluntly replied, “We forced them (Hungary) by sending people up there, and we’ll keep doing it”. Croatia seems content with letting migrants in, as long as it can pass them off to Hungary. Unity indeed.

Crisis = Opportunity

This is the defining moment for the European Project. The refugee crisis could be the wake-up call Europe needs to recommit to the ideals of the European Union, else it could be the driving force behind its dissolution. Western Europeans need to take care to ensure the substantial inclusion of a very nervous and frustrated East, concerned that in any major decision, national sovereignty will simply be pushed aside by another round of majority voting in which a unified West will always win. This is not a sustainable state for the future of the continent.

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past buried just barely beneath the surface: a Europe divided against itself. Europeans must seize this moment to forge a real union or they will soon find the idea of a singular Europe relegated to a footnote of history. It is in these moments of doubt and discord that Europeans must remember one simple fact: that Europe will always be its best as one, rather than divided against itself.

NickAvilaLT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer and Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.