The breaking-down of borders and the free movement of people were central visions of the European Union project. But look anywhere across the continent today and that vision is becoming a nightmare. The flood of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean is affecting every country in Europe and creating troubling new realities.
Along its border with Serbia, the Hungarian government has ordered the construction of a fence to try to keep out the flow of migrants. A temporary structure consists of vast rolls of razor wire. At the Italian-Austrian border, there are unprecedented backlogs of people, as the Austrian authorities refuse to allow migrants to cross. At Calais, there is pandemonium as migrants at the French port attempt to break into the Channel Tunnel or otherwise find a way to cross to Britain. And in the Eastern German town of Heidenau, there have been nights of rioting as locals protested an asylum seekers' shelter, burned down a migrant reception hall and booed Chancellor Merkel when she arrived in the area. Her government has just announced that it expects 800,000 migrants to enter Germany this year.
Migrants from the Middle East enter Hungary from Serbia, on August 26, by crawling under a temporary razor wire fence erected by the Hungarian government. (Image source: WSJ video screenshot)
Everywhere the political climate is turning. Sweden has taken more than its fair share of migrants to Europe in recent years. Its government boasts proudly of the example it believes it is setting. Just one result is that the latest opinion polls have the anti-immigration "Sweden Democrats" showing above any other party. Until recently, the Sweden Democrats were featured in single digits in the polls.
Elsewhere things are, if not breaking apart, then certainly ceasing to hold together. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all announced in recent days that they will not take any more Muslim migrants. This may contravene the EU's migration and asylum policies, but all three countries insist that they will from now on only accept Christian refugees from Syria.
And these are, it must be said, the countries that are "suffering" the problem least. The terms of the Dublin Treaty mean refugees claim asylum in the first EU country in which they arrive, so it is Italy and Greece that are now bearing the most responsibility. It is starting to show. In March, the Greek Defence Minister threatened other EU member states that he would flood the rest of Europe with migrants, including ISIS fighters, if they did not do more to help Greece's finances. In June, the Italian government threatened to issue migrants visas allowing them legally to travel anywhere in the EU. These threats hardly align with the EU's stated ambition of "ever-closer union" between member states. They are a gun to the head of EU integration.
Of course, migration via the soft underbelly of Europe is not a new story. What is new is the scale of the movement and the inadequacy of the response. This year has already seen the largest influx of migrants to date, with no end in sight.
It is not only the terrible humanitarian situation in Syria and Eritrea that is causing the crisis, it is also people from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere looking for a better life to support their families. The chaos in Libya obviously makes the problem of the chosen exit points hard to address. But there is little likelihood that the situation in those home countries will change any time soon.
It is hardly within Europe's power to stabilize the situation in Syria and Eritrea (to name just two) and raise living standards across sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the region. Anyone who does think that Europe can sort out the problems in those countries, as well as in their own, is as naïve as those who think the problem starts at Calais. The challenge does, however, require the type of full-spectrum response that is far from being considered.
There are reasons for this paralysis. To date, the question of "what to do" remains politically toxic for any mainstream Western European politician. During the summer, British Prime Minister David Cameron passingly referred to the "swarm" of migrants at Calais. His political opponents immediately jumped on this and denounced his "offensive" language. What chance is there, however, of proposing the kind of bold thinking we will need to consider in Europe if we keep reducing our response to this crisis to a language game?
The first challenge might be to try to encourage migrants to stay nearer the countries they are fleeing. Professor Paul Collier recently suggested setting-up EU-sponsored work-havens in Jordan to ensure Syrian refugees (who comprise 40% of recent EU arrivals) have an incentive to stay in the region. This not only allows them a better chance of integration, but also makes it easier to return home if and when the situation improves. Similar projects might be considered in other areas.
There is also an urgent need to improve the process of sorting out genuine refugees from economic migrants. The current process is not fit for purpose -- something made worse by the fact that once people are inside Europe, it is exceedingly difficult to send them away, whoever they are. It would make far more sense for EU countries to keep migrants out of Europe while sorting out who they are (most arrivals come without papers) and then assessing the legitimacy of their claim. The EU might consider paying North African countries to provide such holding centres. Tunisia is an obvious possibility, as is Morocco. Perhaps the French government could negotiate with the Algerians. Unless anyone has a desire to go back into Libya, these are the partners with whom we might work.
Once legitimate refugee arrivals are in Europe, it will also be crucial to create a more nuanced tier-system of residencies rather than a one-size fits all system. So apart from permanent right to remain there, should be a use of temporary visas, strictly held to where they are issued and the dates they expire.
These few suggestions may at some point need to be adopted. In private, many lawmakers realize this. But as Europe's leaders keep waiting for such ideas to become politically acceptable, they push the problem around the continent. It is time instead for them to lead. If they fail, then the fences will go up across Europe and at least one part of the European dream, if not more, may die with it.