The recent European Parliament elections have laid bare the growing polarization of opinion on the future of the Union. With the widespread success of nationalist parties such as National Rally and Alternative for Germany, and enthusiastic supporters of the European Union such as the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, voters have signaled that the political landscape is becoming more fractured between those who resent and those who fully endorse the EU.
Much of the press coverage has focused on the continued rise of populist and nationalist parties on the right, with their growing discontent traced back to the decision of German chancellor Angela Merkel to open Germany to refugees in 2015. As the narrative goes, opposition to the European Union is inseparable from opposition to migration while a full-throated endorsement of the European project requires taking Merkel’s position.
But is the backlash against migration — note that the desire for various “exits” seems to have died down as the Brexit debacle grows — really a result of, and therefore a revolt against, the EU project itself? Not exactly. In actuality, it is a story of missed opportunities for the Union. In fact, the EU should have made Europe better, not worse, at handling the migrant crisis. A bloc with a population of 508 million should have been able to absorb a migrant wave that included 1 million people in its peak year, 2015. Current migrant numbers are far lower.
However, Europe did not absorb refugees as a bloc. Instead, a few countries — Germany, Sweden, Italy — took the brunt of the shock, as other countries, including Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia refused to take in migrants in meaningful numbers. On last Sunday’s episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily, host Michael Barbaro claimed that Germany’s 2015 decision to defy EU rules and admit more than a million refugees was a triumph of the European project, “the ultimate affirmation of EU values.”
In a small way, he is right. The EU, emerging from the ashes of a Europe riven by world war, points forward to a more humane, less violent Europe, carrying the promises of human rights and economic progress. And who could not be moved by the sight of Germans cheering at train stations, welcoming refugees fleeing violence that drew comparisons to Germany’s own crimes 70 years before?
But as the following years made obvious, Germany and Sweden alone were not able to handle the shock of admitting so many migrants from such different cultures. The problem is, they never should have had to in the first place. What is the Union for, if not to enable states to coordinate their actions, solving problems that individual ones cannot? The actual number of refugees represents less than one half of 1 percent of Europe’s total population. But the 2015 migrant-quota plan, meant to ease the burden that migration placed on Italy and Greece, was never taken seriously by most governments. And Operation Triton, intended to secure borders through air power and naval power and to supplant the overmatched Italian navy in policing the Mediterranean, has been perpetually underfunded and ineffective.
So Barbaro is less than correct in characterizing the initial German outpouring of Gastfreundschaft as triumph for the EU. A triumph would have been the EU member states coordinating a shared response to asylum processing, resettlement quotas, and border policing. In fact, the EU’s failings led Merkel to make her decision to welcome such huge numbers of refugees, and the backlash swiftly followed.
Both sides, then, mischaracterize how the EU got to where it is today: uncertain and divided. Barbaro makes the common progressive error of using allusions to vaguely defined “values” to mandate preferred policies: in this case, Germany admitting a million refugees all at once, damn the easily predictable backlash. “EU values,” in this telling, should lead to individual countries exercising little or no control over their borders to immigration from (importantly) outside the EU.
Populists and Euroskeptics commit a similar sin, however, in characterizing the EU as leading to unchecked immigration and an erosion of “European identity.” Unilateral actions by individual states did more damage than any EU regulation, propelled by the ineffectiveness of the Union in organizing a united response. And it seems that Europeans still experience a healthy (or maybe unhealthy) zeal for their national identities, given the rise of nationalist parties. The difference between Spain and Slovakia is still far greater than that between West Virginia and Washington.
Of course, immigration is not the only concern that Euroskeptics bring to the table. Burdensome regulations, a democracy deficit, and anger at elites associated with the EU project were all important issues in the recent poll. But immigration is certainly the largest one, and the waves of migrants are not going away. Even if the Middle East sees a relative lull in violence, African populations are exploding, which will increase migrant flows to Europe’s southern border. Western governments can do very little about that, other than trying to encourage economic development and political stability on the African continent.
But the success of Euroskeptic and “Europtimist” parties in the parliamentary elections do not portend well for an effective European response. The liberal impulse to allow extremely high levels of immigration, condemning those who question it (sometimes rightly) as racist and ignoring the social strain it brings, has already proven to be wrongheaded. But Euroskeptic nationalists also undermined and will continue to damage the bloc’s efforts to contain and manage migration, through the sabotaging and defiance of initiatives such as resettlement quotas.
Of course, the traditional center-right and center-left parties were hardly exemplars of cooperation on this point; their reluctance and foot-dragging has only created fuel for the nationalists’ rise. Maybe the EU is simply too unwieldy and fractious when solving a problem of this magnitude, and maybe attempts at greater political integration were always hubristic. But whether or not the member states start seriously cooperating on migration, the crisis will continue. Collective action through the EU remains far and away the best hope for grappling with the challenge of migration. Italy tried to police the Mediterranean on its own, and failed. Germany threw open its borders on its own, and has threatened the very cohesion of the EU. European states will not get through this crisis acting by themselves.
It will do no one any good to pretend that mass migration is a problem only for racists; it is equally destructive to weaken the best tools Europeans have for managing it.