Europe’s Test

The refugee crisis has challenged the European Union’s position on the moral high ground.

By Daniel Penev.

What terrorism was for politicians and policy makers for the first two decades of the 21st century, migration is poised to be for the next. From Trump’s America to Brexit to the shores of the Mediterranean, the question of migrants and immigrants is emerging as one of the defining debates of our time—one that is straining the ties keeping the European Union together.

“To analyze the problem [of the recent migrant and refugee numbers] is not that difficult, and to also point to solutions isn’t even that difficult,” Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, told Foreign Policy last fall. “The difficulty is to get member states to come together on those solutions. […] The politics and the morality of [the refugee crisis] run in opposite directions.”

Timmermans’ statement aptly captures the conflict between politics and ethics that characterizes policy-making in areas such as migration. It is precisely this conflict, and the E.U.’s inadequate approach to resolving it, that has made the recent flow of asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East and Africa into one of the greatest tests the E.U. has faced so far. Indeed, what is popularly known as the “refugee crisis” looks more like a political crisis resulting from the defining feature of European integration. Policy-making in the E.U., for all its differences from policy-making by individual countries and international governmental organizations, remains in the hands of states. It is increasingly obvious that in those areas where it has no exclusive power, as in asylum and migration, the E.U. acts more as a coordinator between states than a decision-maker, with limited capacity to ensure the implementation and application of common E.U. standards. That being the case, the E.U.’s actions reflect the European Council’s prioritization of …

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