How Europe could turn the migrant crisis into a win for itself

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the migrant crisis in Europe might actually end up strengthening the European project. Or at least so seem to think the leaders of institutions in Brussels.

The European Commission has presented a raft of initiatives to tackle multiple aspects of the crisis. All point to “more Europe” as the way forward. To different degrees and depending on the issue, Brussels might succeed in promoting a common European approach. The more it can do so, the more successful the EU’s overall answer to the crisis is likely to be.

The limits of voluntary Europeanization

Brussels is performing a delicate balancing act: between the need to address pan-European challenges, on the one hand, and the need to respect national prerogatives on the other. 

European institutions have repeatedly promoted voluntary mechanisms as means to address the migrants and refugees crisis. However, the results obtained through a Europe à la carte approach have been underwhelming, to say the least. Europe’s relocation program for asylum seekers currently stranded in Greece and Italy is a case in point. Originally conceived as a voluntary scheme, this had to be turned into a compulsory program to force reluctant member states to accept their fair share of asylum seekers. Nevertheless, the scheme is still struggling to take off: Of the 106,000 asylum seekers that European countries pledged to welcome from Greece and Italy last September, only 208 have actually been relocated as of December 15. 

[T]he results obtained through a Europe à la carte approach have been underwhelming, to say the least.

Similarly, the Commission’s latest proposal for a voluntary humanitarian admission scheme with Turkey for refugees from Syria risks going nowhere. Due to its voluntary nature, it leaves member states in charge of the final decision on whether and to what extent they’ll welcome asylum seekers. Past experience seems to suggest that, when left to the goodwill of national governments, voluntary humanitarian schemes tend to fail. 

So why do European institutions keep proposing pan-European answers to the ongoing crisis? Because they are aware that national governments are increasingly forced to work together by the unfolding events. 

Waving goodbye to the waiver?

While actual evidence of a link between migration and terrorism is rather thin, the U.S. public debate on migrants and refugees has become increasingly toxic following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. In the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections, both sides of the aisle are now uncharacteristically coming together in calling for a revision of the visa waiver program, which allows over 20 million non-U.S. citizens to enter the United States without a visa every year. 

A potential tightening of the U.S. visa waiver program is now concentrating minds in European capitals. It is rare for the EU ambassador to the United States and all his European colleagues to co-sign an open letter—but they recently did just that in support of the visa waiver program. This is testimony to the fact that the whole of Europe is acutely aware that, unless the EU as a whole gets a grip on border management, Washington might further restrict access to the United States for European citizens. European capitals do not often come together to such a full extent—when they do, serious policy proposals might follow.

Past experience seems to suggest that, when left to the goodwill of national governments, voluntary humanitarian schemes tend to fail.

Supranational answers to national failures

European member states recognize the repercussions that having porous borders entail, and most seem ready to support far-reaching proposals to reform European border security. Long debated behind the scenes, recent proposals by the European Commission are relatively radical in this respect. Among other initiatives, they foresee the establishment of an embryonic European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG). Critically and unlike its predecessor Frontex, the new EBCG will “stand on its feet.” Thanks to the right to acquire and use its own equipment, 1,000 permanent staff and a 322 million euro yearly budget (both roughly double the ones currently available to Frontex), the EBCG will not depend on charitable contributions from the member states. Even more crucially and should a member state be deemed to be failing to protect the external borders of the EU, the EBCG could be deployed even against the will of the member state in question. 

Taken together, these proposals would mean that European institutions could openly infringe on the sovereignty of member states in order to guarantee the security of the EU as a whole. This development would be nothing short of historic: As it is already the case in other policy areas, the hierarchical supremacy of the EU over the individual states would also be affirmed in the field of border management. 

Real vs. fictional sovereignty

European institutions are promoting real European sovereignty against fictional national sovereignties. The involvement of supranational institutions can help the European Union meaningfully address both the humanitarian and the security challenges that the migrant and refugee crises have brought to European shores. Crucially, the scope of their success will also determine whether this crisis has been wasted or turned into an opportunity to strengthen the European project.