Migrant Crisis Tests EU’s Foundations
Finian CUNNINGHAM | 24.08.2015 | OPINION

Migrant Crisis Tests EU’s Foundations

The influx of migrants into the European Union could be dealt with humanely and practicably – if EU members worked together in solidarity. But the haphazard influx is inciting tensions between member states precisely because of the lack of EU solidarity. Germany – the biggest destination for refugees – is showing its exasperation with other states, which is in turn eroding the very foundations of the 28-member bloc.

The freedom of movement for European citizens between European Union member states is one of the foundational rights of the bloc since it declared itself a Single Market back in 1987. So, the latest warning from Germany that it may withdraw from treaty provisions that afford this right is a blow to the heart of the EU and its outward image of «unity».

Germany’s interior minister Thomas De Maiziere was speaking after latest figures show that his country was projected to receive a record 800,000 migrants seeking asylum this year. That is four times the number that Germany processed last year, according to Eurostat figures cited by the BBC.

«Germany's interior minister says he cannot rule out suspending participation in the agreement allowing passport-free travel between most European states», reported the BBC.

De Maiziere was referring to the Schengen Agreement which enshrines the right to unrestricted travel within much of the EU for its citizens.

He made a swipe at other EU members whom he inferred were passing the burden of migrant numbers on to Germany. He also called on Britain and other European countries to share the responsibility for accommodating the influx of migrants from outside the EU region.

«If nobody sticks to the law, then Schengen is in danger. That's why we urgently need European solutions», De Maiziere said.

The seamless travel arrangement known as the Schengen Agreement came into operation in 1995. Of the current 28 EU member states, 22 are signatories to the Schengen Treaty, which permits travel of citizens from one «Schengen country» to another without the requirement of border controls or presenting of passports.

Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy and Greece, for example, are part of the system, as are Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Four countries that have free-trade association with the EU – Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland – are also in the Schengen Area, making 26 participating states in total.

EU members Britain and Ireland are not signatories to Schengen, while four other EU states – Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia – are being assessed for eventual participation in the arrangement.

Under the EU’s asylum application rules, the country where a migrant enters the bloc is obligated to process the asylum claim.

But, clearly, the surge in the European migration crisis over the past two years has placed an extraordinary burden on so-called frontline states like Italy and Greece. Numbers of migrants reaching the shores of those two countries have escalated to the point where local authorities say that they are overwhelmed and cannot cope with accommodating hundreds of thousands of would-be asylum seekers. Greece’s own economic collapse over its national debt crisis has exacerbated the problem for the Athens government.

Both Italy and Greece have warned the rest of the EU that if special financial assistance is not forthcoming from Brussels, or if other EU states do not step up to the plate to help with domiciling migrants, then they – the frontline states – would effectively loosen travel restrictions across their borders.

That means that migrants are able to board trains and buses in Italy and head north, while from Greece the refugees can cross into Macedonia, and from there into Serbia, Hungary and beyond.

Most migrants that arrive in Italy or Greece appear to view northern Europe as a better prospect. Germany and the Scandinavian countries are commonly invoked as favoured destinations, owing in part to the perception of strong economies and employment opportunities. Britain, too, appears to have a strong draw for migrants, probably because English language is more accessible for many of them, thus increasing their prospects of assimilation.

Last year, Italy was forced into cancelling its national maritime rescue program, Mare Nostrum, for the thousands of migrants who venture across the Mediterranean on rickety boats from Libya. That program was costing the Italian government about €120 million a year to run, but other EU members, Britain in particular, were reluctant to contribute to the facility, and so Rome was obliged to terminate it.

Meanwhile, Greece has been railroaded with draconian economic austerity policies by an increasingly high-handed Berlin.

On both scores, European «solidarity» – another one of the bloc’s supposed founding principles – has not been much in evidence, as far as Italy and Greece are concerned.

No wonder then that those two countries are less than meticulous when vetting migrants passing through their borders and on to their preferred destinations in northern Europe.

One could call it a form of natural justice. If southern EU countries are not being given adequate support for what is described as the worst migration crisis in Europe since the Second World War, then why should they scrupulously enforce rules over asylum applications?

The Schengen Agreement is strictly speaking a right only for European citizens. But the seamless travel arrangement between member states under Schengen makes it easier for non-EU nationals to likewise journey without interruption.

Germany appears to be bearing the brunt. Last year, according to Eurostat figures, Germany processed some 200,000 asylum applicants – which was by far the biggest in the whole EU. Second highest was Sweden, dealing with about 80,000 applicants. Next most accommodating was Italy, France and Hungary. Britain was ranked sixth, taking in about 35,000 asylum applicants – or only about 17 per cent of Germany’s intake.

The evident rancour now being felt by Germany is understandable, especially with regard to Britain, as De Maiziere alluded to.

United Nations’ figures show that most of the migrants coming into the European Union are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, where war and violence are the main driving forces pushing refugees toward Europe. In all three cases, Britain, along with the United States, has turned those same countries upside down with illegal wars, both overt and covert.

Britain’s Conservative premier David Cameron is responsible too for ransacking Libya militarily with the NATO-assisted coup against Muammar Gadaffi at the end of 2011. France – another key member of the NATO regime-change operation in Libya – also bears culpability for the ongoing turmoil in that north African country which consequently transformed into a gateway for desperate migrants to Europe.

Yet when it comes to taking responsibility for the humanitarian repercussions of those wars – in the form of massive refugee flows to Europe – Britain has especially shown a supercilious»fortress mentality « in keeping migrants out of its territory, leaving it up to others like Germany to shoulder the burden.

Germany, however, is not blameless in the migrant conundrum. Berlin’s heavy-handed treatment of Greece over the Euro debt wrangle has fuelled deep enmity in Athens, where allowing passage of refugees to northern Europe can be seen as a response to EU-imposed financial woes.

The migration problem facing the EU is in a very real way a problem of its own making, or at least by certain members of the EU – Britain and France in particular, owing to their reckless and lawless military interventions in the Middle East and Africa.

But what it is adding to the EU’s strain in coping with the challenge posed by the surge in refugees into the bloc is the all-too apparent lack of solidarity between members, illustrated by the way Greece has been financially hung out to dry, while Italy’s appeals for help have been largely shunned.

The tensions being stoked between EU members is in turn rebounding to undermine core principles of the bloc. Germany’s questioning of a fundamental treaty on the free movement of people shows that the EU’s constitutional fabric is being eroded.

Angry street protests over the weekend in Dresden by extremist anti-immigrant groups, in which some 30 German police officers were injured in violent scuffles, will serve to heighten annoyance in Berlin that Germany is being left to carry the can by other EU member states, most notably Britain.

Interior minister De Maiziere’s pleading for «European solutions «betrays the contempt that Berlin is harbouring toward Britain and other EU members who are perceived as leaving Germany in the lurch to deal with the migrant problem.

Britain, not being a member of the Schengen Agreement, may argue that is has a legal defence to block the flow of refugees across it borders. But from a moral standpoint, Britain’s hard-nosed attitude seems indefensible.

The European Union has a combined population of over 500 million citizens. While the influx of non-EU migrants over the past two years is certainly a dramatic escalation in numbers, those numbers are minuscule compared with the total size of the bloc. Therefore a rational, fair distribution of asylum seekers across the EU would seem to be a practicable and humane solution.

But the thorny challenge is exposing nationalistic rivalries between EU members, making a European solution elusive. If the right to free movement is abandoned then that further exposes the shaky foundations of the EU.

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