If you had to identify a nadir for the European Union, it would probably be the late summer of 2015. In those heady days, vast flows of people — some refugees, some migrants — streamed across Anatolia and the Mediterranean for the continent, intent on reaching the prosperous economies of its north and west, bolstered by Angela Merkel’s throwing open the doors to all who would come.
For Europe’s leaders, priding themselves on European values — primary among them the prevention of atrocity within their territory — it was more than an embarrassing affair: It cut at the heart of the European project itself. For the first time since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Europe found itself forced to grapple with a humanitarian crisis rudely intruding on its territory. In the international media, images circulated of refugees and migrants occupying train stations in the Balkans or, finding their way stymied, marching to Vienna on foot. With the populace alarmed by this vast influx, Europe’s vaunted system of passport-free internal travel collapsed, as countries began to impose passport checks at their borders to stop the flow. Hungary built a wall on its southern border. Austria, Slovenia, Denmark, and even Germany reestablished border controls. Countries were unable, or unwilling, to cooperate: Each sought to place the burden on its neighbors, with the result that the crisis festered for months. For a time it looked as if the European Union might not survive in its current form, its manifest inadequacy to address the crisis having become all too clear.
The aftermath of the refugee crisis played itself out in the great dramas of 2016 — Britain’s shocking vote to leave the EU in June; the palpable rise of euroskepticism and populism throughout the year; and in November, the election as president of the United States of Donald Trump, a candidate who had in many ways run more against Angela Merkel than against his actual opponent. In 2017, however, the last remnants of Europe’s collective refugee-related paroxysm finally seemed to fade away, as Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen both turned in disappointing performances in their respective national elections.
Now Europe is back, symbolized by the resolutely regal Emmanuel Macron, whose victory over Le Pen provided the final impetus for European rejuvenation.
Or is it?
The migration crisis was, to a very large extent, the source of Europe’s recent ills, providing a lightning rod for all on left and right alike who sought to impugn the existing order. Only with its superficial dispelling — partly through a deal with Turkey, partly through a natural ebb in the flow of people — could Europe recover, though with the root causes of the problem left largely unresolved. Were it to return, the situation would revert to the dire state of two years ago.
And return it has. The focus of migration has shifted — from the Aegean and Balkans to the Mediterranean — but the situation is much the same. Migrant flows across the Mediterranean, from Libya to southern Italy, have seen a sharp uptick in recent months. Consider that 85,000 people have landed in Italy this year, with 12,000 coming in a 48-hour period in late June.
The Italians are understandably worried, especially in the light of upcoming national elections early next year. In a country that already boasts a potent populist party — Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which now controls the mayoralties of Turin and Rome — the image of migrant-induced chaos could be enough to cause great disturbances in the current system.
So too in Austria, which will hold elections in October. The far Right nearly won that country’s presidency late last year, and the migrant question still carries politically charged connotations. The Austrian defense minister announced earlier this week his intention of sending troops and tanks to the Tyrol, on the Italian border, for the purposes of blocking the entry of migrants into his country. Already maintaining border checks with Hungary and Slovenia, Austria may soon institute them with Italy as well. The announcement seems sure to provoke tensions with Italy, demonstrating a palpable lack of intra-European cooperation at the time when Europe needs it most, and suggesting that the resolution to the 2015 crisis was little more than facial.
The stage is set for a second round of European inaction. A sense of real leadership is required, but little seems to be on offer.
The ball is thus in Europe’s court. We have heard much about the vaunted European recovery, but that talk means little without concrete action. The problem that vexed Europe in 2015 was an abject lack of cooperation between the EU’s member states, which would rather pass the buck to Brussels or to other countries than address the issue themselves. That tendency in European affairs has not gone away; it has simply been permitted to dissipate along with the refugee flows from the east. Italy has recently proposed that European ports be opened to some migrant-carrying vessels, thus ameliorating to a degree the burden on Italian ports. Germany vetoed the proposal, while various Eurocrats argued that the responsibility should be shared with the north African countries from which the migrants come. The stage is set for a second round of European inaction. A sense of real leadership is required, but little seems to be on offer.
Perhaps that leadership could come from Emmanuel Macron, for whom this ongoing crisis represents a first testing of the waters. Much has been made of the newly minted French president’s professed desire to reign over his country as Jupiter did over the Roman pantheon, to fill the patriarchal void with which the French have grappled ever since the execution of Louis XVI in 1793. Macron stands as a benevolent authoritarian, but a youthful, charismatic one, enamored with the idea of Europe and intent on defending the Continent and his country against the populist menace. Now is the time to see whether he is worth all the talk, or whether his audacious imperial stylings are just posturing. If France and Germany really are to stand astride the new Europe, fitfully dragging it into the future, this is the first test. Can Merkel and Macron, the experienced old hand and the ambitious neophyte, forge intra-European cooperation out of what little of it has existed? Will their partnership be able to work with the smaller, less powerful European countries to fashion an equitable solution, or will they simply reach yet another impasse?
This initial hurdle comes at a less than ideal time for Macron. He has expressed his hope that the first months of his presidency will be spent overhauling France’s sclerotic labor laws, over the vociferous opposition of the powerful trade unions. For the sake of political expediency, he intended to do this as soon as possible: preferably this summer by executive decree, during the vacation months, when the unions will find organizing large-scale protests a logistical challenge. When the protests begin after the rentrée in September, the reforms will be a fait accompli. But this is no simple task: It would require enormous time and energy. That time will now have to be devoted to devising a European solution to the renewed migrant crisis as well. With domestic imperative balanced against continental crisis, Macron will soon have to determine where his true priorities lie and whether he commands the political capacity to address two crucial issues simultaneously.
If Europe is back, its spirit renewed, its political will reinvigorated, now is the time to prove it. The ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean provides the venue. Without a satisfactory resolution, Europe may well find itself sliding back into September 2015, with all the malignant political consequences that followed. The honeymoon is over.