Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

EU under pressure

The number of refugees arriving in the European Union doubled to 1.2 million in 2015, but despite the strain experts say that the union will stay together, reports Stefan Weichert

Al-Ahram Weekly

A debate about refugees is going on in every part of the European Union, with several countries taking measures to be less attractive to refugees, in the hope that they will seek asylum in other countries.

Several countries have introduced border controls that threaten free movement in the EU, one of the cornerstones of the European project. This has made several commentators suggest that the EU is now dead and could disappear in the near future.

“The European Union could break apart,” Jean Asselborn, foreign minister of Luxembourg, told the DPA news agency in September. “This could go incredibly fast, when isolation instead of solidarity becomes the rule internally and externally.”

Said Asselborn, “If we do not find a European solution to the migration crisis, if more and more countries believe that they can approach the issue only nationally, then Schengen’s dead,” he said. The Schengen Agreement led to creation of an area including 26 European nations that abolished passport controls on their internal borders.

In 2015, 1.2 million first-time asylum applicants were registered in the EU, more than double the number in 2014. This has made many wonder what the number might be in 2016 when the rush of refugees is expected to start as the warm weather begins, making it easier to travel to Europe.

Already, thousands of refugees are stuck in Greece and Eastern European countries, where it has been made harder for them to cross borders and seek asylum in Western Europe. Several countries, among them Macedonia, have put up fences to keep the refugees out.

The upcoming UK European Union membership referendum in June is also making people think hard about the EU’s future, since this will be in doubt if a major country decides to leave.

Last week, the EU made a deal with Turkey to send the refugees back to the country in what was called a breakthrough by European leaders who hope that the deal will make the number of refugees in the EU drop and halt the ongoing crisis.

For Syrians, the deal means that every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey will be exchanged for a Syrian asylum-seeker in Turkey who will be found a home in the EU. Refugees from other nationalities who are not entitled to be in the EU can also be sent back to Turkey under last week’s deal.

“I can’t remember that I have ever seen such a movement of people happen in this way. We have to go back centuries to find something close to it,” said Ingo Peters, an associate professor in the Department of Political and Social Science at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany.

“The living conditions of the refugees in the camps on the Greek border with Montenegro do not look part of Europe in terms of human dignity and human rights,” he said.

Asked if he thought the EU could break up, Peters said he did not consider this to be “realistic for the time being”. However, he added that the fact that people are discussing it says something about the problems the EU is facing.

“There are conflicting lines that should not be ignored, but let’s wait and see. In regard to Schengen, we have to remember that there is a lot of economic interest in keeping it and returning to open borders as soon as possible,” Peters said.

Boldizsár Nagy, an associate professor at the Central European Institute in Hungary, agreed, adding that he believed the Schengen system would be too costly to remove. Asked if he thought the EU would break up, he said, “Breaking up is possible, but it does not make sense. It will not benefit anything other than short-term political gain.”

Nagy is a co-founder and former board member of the European Society of International Law and member of the editorial boards of the International Journal of Refugee Law and the European Journal of Migration and Law.

He continued, “Closing a country’s borders might benefit that country, but if all countries did the same it would threaten their entire existence. What might be good individually could be a disaster when taken together.”

“Also there is no way of stopping the refugees. We have seen how they have cut the fences in Hungary. Fences can always be cut,” he said.

Nagy said the solution should be to strike a deal on how to distribute the refugees between all the EU countries and to solve the problems in the countries where they come from.

“But can there be a deal? I am optimistic in the sense that there seems to be something going on with Turkey, for example,” he said. “But as my Syrian friends say, this is not a refugee problem for them. It is war that brings them here, and we should stop the war to stop the refugees.”

The situation in some countries is critical as a result of the refugee crisis, explained Panos Tsakloglou, a professor in the Department of International and European Economic Studies at Athens University of Economics and Business, who said that in economically weak countries like Greece the costs of the refugees are too large a burden.

“It is a very difficult situation,” Tsakloglou said. “Greece is in a bad situation anyway with close to 25 per cent of the workforce being unemployed, and the country can’t take all these refugees. It is as if some countries are trying to make Greece into a refugee camp, and this is not manageable.”

He thinks the EU should move closer together and institute common border policing, a single European asylum agency, allocate refugees to all EU countries and share costs.

“But I don’t see the political will to do this, at least in the short run, and I think that’s the real danger,” he said. Nevertheless, he thought there was only a minor risk that the EU would split up as a result.

Peters also believes that the answer is for EU countries to move closer together, and he referred to the economic help given to Greece after the financial crisis in 2008 as being an example of common European measures.

“Everyone knew that the euro was not the ideal type of single currency when it was set on track without a direct link to a harmonised economic policy during the Maastricht negotiations,” Peters said. “And in response to the euro crisis, the EU has been able to push economic integration further, for example by establishing a banking union.

“Thus, a breakup of the EU is a worst-case scenario, whereas I believe the many different aspects of the crisis in the EU, from economic issues to refugee issues, could be overcome by further integration after the immediate problem of the refugee crisis has been settled.”

Moving together to solve the refugee crisis could also benefit the union, said Nagy, who pointed out that many EU member states need refugees to sustain their populations and therefore their economies.

He was also sure that the EU is large enough to sustain a million refugees, but he acknowledged that the debate is “harsh”.

“People are saying that the refugees are destroying their cultures,” he said. “But if the cultures of 500 million Europeans are being threatened by one million refugees, that means these cultures are meant for destruction,” he said.

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