Europe has gone through tremendous changes since the fall of the Iron Curtain. After decades of separation, the EU now extends far into Eastern Europe, with Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and others in the old Soviet bloc as integral members of the political and currency union. Nineteen of the now 28 European Union members subscribing to the Euro, the EU has come a long way in a relatively short time since the early 1990s. Generation Y had the prospect of living in a Europe that offers a better life than the Europe our parents and grandparents were born into. One family, all in one boat, working together and showing solidarity to create a better future for 500+ million people. The future looked bright. Well, that’s what we thought.
Now the EU is being tested in a crisis situation with migration levels at a high point point along members’ shores. This is when European solidarity is needed most, otherwise we not only fail the European idea, but often also those who ask us for help.
In recent years, people have come to realise that Europe is not just about sharing the benefits of co-operation, it’s also about sharing our burdens when we are tested in challenging times. With the crisis in Ukraine being the exception for a united European approach, the financial crisis and - even more so - the refugee crisis has shown us that member states are first and foremost looking after themselves. After years of talking about a united Europe, the self-interest of some nation-states is on the rise again. While some forces pull in the direction of an ever-closer union, others push away to protect the decision-making power of nation-states. Calls for sub-national autonomy in Scotland, Catalonia and even the work of the City Growth Commission underline the desire and need for further devolution. In a time of widespread political disengagement and a lack of trust in political institutions felt by many in the UK and elsewhere, calls for devolved powers might make sense. However, considering the extent of the global challenges we face we might want to take advantage of a stronger and more united European voice as well. To reconcile the two sides is understandably no easy task.
The lack of a common European approach to the refugee crisis illustrates this tension in particular. According to EU regulations, it is the responsibility of the country where migrants arrive to administer asylum claims. So, we are able to set up joint operations to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean, but a soon as refugees step onto European soil they are subject to national rather than common European policies. The burden this places on EU border countries, such as Italy, Greece and Hungary is obvious. Add economic difficulties to the mix and you can see how why these countries feel overwhelmed and let down by their European partners.
The lack of support became especially clear in mid-June when Italian PM Renzi criticised its EU partners for not doing enough. What sounded like a threat, was in reality a desperate call for help. Greek PM Tsipras made a similar remark saying, "Now we will find out whether solidarity in Europe is real." After all, the Mediterranean is not only the border of the EU’s southern member states, it’s the border for the whole of the EU area.
The current number of asylum seekers in individual EU member states ranges from only 9 to over 3300 applicants per one million inhabitants with an EU average of 365 applicants. 20 out of 28 member states, however, are below the average. Two countries alone (Germany and Hungary) received more than 50 per cent of the applications. Sweden – a country with a population of close to 10 million – received over six per cent of the asylum applications in Europe during the first quarter of 2015 which equals more than 1100 applications per one million inhabitants. The UK with a population of 64 million received only four per cent of the applications, equaling only 114 applications per one million inhabitants.
The approval rate for asylum claims also varies widely across Europe, ranging from 91 per cent in Bulgaria to only 10 per cent in Hungary – showing that the number of applications received does not necessarily correlate with accepting a high number of asylum seekers. However, it is important to note that the main citizenships of applicants varies between the countries which affects the approval rate. For example, applicants from Kosovo for example are highly likely to be rejected whilst applications from Syria are more likely to be accepted. Regardless of the applicants’ nationality, however, resources are needed to care for asylum seekers and to administer their applications. Even taking economic disparities between member states into account, it is evident that the responsibility is not evenly shared. In short: whilst some countries step up their efforts, others are reluctant to help people in need and share responsibility.
A few months ago, there was an attempt to unify the European response. Brussels proposed a quota for the distribution of refugees in Europe. This quota was to consider the member states’ population, GDP, unemployment rate and the number of refugees already living in these states. It doesn’t get any fairer than that. Unfortunately, the debate only led to some half-hearted promises of support or outright refusal to sign up to the agreement. A joint approach by all states with regards to who is classified as a refugee, how they are supported and the administrative procedures and criteria they are subject to would amount to a unified, orderly and fair European approach, which would remove the impetus for migrants to try to smuggle themselves between internal EU borders. It would also enable member states to share their responsibilities, make adequate support more likely and help the UK and France to overcome the crisis in Calais.
The lack of solidarity is also short-sighted. Across Europe, governments might win voters’ support when the number of asylum seekers is being kept low, but those who ask us for help in a time of need will remember which countries supported them and who closed their doors. This will harm the country’s reputation in the long term. EU members will also remember who shared the responsibilities and which countries focused mostly on their own interests. Member states being asked for support or renegotiation of EU treaties might be keen to remember that in future. This is not the time for political games, this is the time to step up to the plate and to help people in need. If any country wants to live up to Europe’s values, back up words with action, and strengthen its standing on the international stage, now is the time.
How are we selling the idea of Europe to its people if some states are willing to share responsibilities whilst others are doggedly pursuing their own interest? Is that the kind of Europe we had in mind when we set out to build a better future for our continent? Europe is a unique project with opportunities and risks alike, but the current nation-state-centred approach is not helping anyone.