Opinion piece by Toby Vogel, Research Communications Officer at Europe in the World, Centre for European Policy Studies. Vogel was a participant at the international conference Move.Link.Engage, which was organized by the Belgrade Open School in Belgrade on 18 and 19 September.
Discussing the various crises that have hit the European Union over the last decade can be a frustrating undertaking if you find yourself in Brussels. In every such discussion, EU officials will sooner or later trot out the cliché that in the end, the Union has only grown stronger from crises. That may well have been the case in the past, for example with the new eurozone governance put in place in the wake of the financial crisis – but it is no guide for the future. More worryingly, the so-called migration crisis, which at least in the popular imagination is still ongoing, hasn’t simply exposed rifts between member states; the EU’s actions, and those of its member states, have undermined the Union’s fundamental values.
But first a word on the nature of this crisis. The refugee or migration crisis in Europe reached its peak in 2015, when around 1.5 million people arrived in Europe seeking protection or simply a better life. The real crisis, however, was not the product of numbers but of an almost criminal neglect on the part of the EU and its member states; they had been made complacent by four years of civil war in Syria during which few refugees attempted or managed to reach European shores – yet it was predictable that sooner or later, Syrians would turn to Europe as conditions in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey became more difficult. Greece’s asylum system was a shambles, but that was common knowledge among European policymakers and could have been addressed in anticipation of large numbers of Syrians arriving. Yet this was not done. Attempts to harmonize national asylum systems across the EU had remained stuck in a technocratic incrementalism that failed to put in place aneffective solidarity mechanism, instead burdening the “frontline states” with the bulk of asylum procedures under the Dublin regulation. The crisis was of Europe’s making.
The migration crisis triggered a second crisis, a crisis of EU values. In September 2015, a majority of member states endorsed a plan prepared by the European Commission to redistribute asylum-seekers across the EU with the help of quotas. Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister, openly opposed the measure, telling his parliament: “As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.” This was a shocking attack by a member state leader on a decision taken by a valid majority of national governments on an important issue. Such open defiance of EU law was unprecedented in the EU’s history. On that day, the EU in effect ceased operating as a community of values and of law in the area of asylum and migration. (The relocation scheme was this month found tobe in line with EU law by the EU’stop court.)
Recent developments in Hungary and Poland, where strong parliamentary majorities are pushing through an illiberal agenda and attacking the independence of the judiciary, have contributed to this crisis of values. For ‘normative power Europe’, this is a serious challenge. Some of the measures introduced by Poland and Hungary might be skirting the boundaries of the values of “pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men” listed in Article 2 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. These governments have weakened the rule of law, prompting the European Commission to launch several infringement procedures and, in the case of Poland, taking steps towards the possible activation of Article 7, which as a final measure would theoretically make it possible (with unanimous backing from the other memberstates) to suspend a country’s voting rights in the Council of the EU.
The Commission has also launched infringement procedures against the two countries plus the Czech Republic over their refusal to meet their obligations under the refugee relocation scheme. The move, however, appears to be largely symbolic: the relocation scheme is set to expire at the end of this month; many other member states have not met their quota either (but were politically savvy enough not to challenge it); and since member states are allowed to cherry-pick which refugees they want to admit (for example, only single females, or families, or Christians), there is a lack of eligible asylum-seekers.
In a broader sense, however, the EU itself, and not just its member states, betrayed the values on which it is supposedly built, in its response to the migration crisis. With the EU-Turkey deal and its actions off the Libyan coast, the EU has in effect curbed the access of refugees to international protection, with credible allegations of (prohibited) refoulement taking place off Libya. With Turkey, it has signaled, by agreeing to open additional chapters of the accession talks, that the process is open to political bargaining.The EU should fix its democracy and rule of law problem irrespective of its effects on enlargement countries. These negative effects, however, make it even more pressing that the Commission and the Council start taking the EU’s values seriously in their policymaking.