Monday, September 14, 2015

Why the E.U. is Compromised in Handling the Refugee Crisis

At least four E.U. states, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, rejected a federal plan on September 11, 2015 that would have imposed refugee quotas on the states. The failure to come up with a fair allocation of migrants by state threatened to undo the borderless travel within the E.U. The tremendous influx of mostly Syrian refugees exacerbated differences between the states; given their power even at the federal level of the E.U., the infighting was a risk to the viability of the E.U. itself. I contend that structural flaws in the E.U. itself unnecessarily compromised the Union from quashing the risk to itself by solving the refugee problem. The state governments were clearly not in unison in dealing with the problem themselves.

Refugees held up in Hungary because the state's government was overwhelmed. Why didn't the E.U. step in to help? (Mauricio Limo/NYT).

“The cold reception migrants received in Budapest was a contrast to the welcome in Munich.”[1] The refugees faced a patchwork of policies at the state level within the E.U., which at the federal level was “ill equipped to deal with the surge.”[2] Janos Lazar, the chief of staff of Hungary’s governor, accused the E.U. of failing to properly police its territory and manage the refugee situation overall. The problem “is the E.U. itself,” he said.[3] Left on their own, Hungarian officials had work begun on a fence along the E.U. border facing Serbia, held up trains and vehicles entering through Serbia bound for Austria and Germany, and cracked down on migrants entering without going through the designated check-points.[4] The E.U. requires migrants to register with the first state they enter, which put a strain on Hungary.

The difficulty in arriving at federal policies on screening, allocating, and paying for the migrants goes to “the heart of the viability of the European Union’s borderless interior,” which states on the border were at the time required to police and protect.”[5] Some of those states—notably Greece, Italy and Hungary—were so economically stressed that they were admitting migrants with little or no processing. This in turn prompted Austria at one point to search vehicles and trains entering the state from Hungary, formally to check for smuggled migrants and make sure that the trains would pass through the state on the way to Germany. Borderless interstate travel, which came into being in the Schengen Agreement,  was becoming undone. Angela Merkel of Germany warned that the agreement among many of the E.U.’s states would “be on the agenda of many” if refugees were not distributed fairly between the states.[6] The following week, with some states still shirking their fair share of refugees, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and the Netherlands announced that they would reinstate temporary border controls. German officials claimed they were overwhelmed with the influx.[7] The controls would increase the pressure on other states, such as Britain and Poland, to take in more migrants and prevent non-refugee migrants from entering unlawfully. The complete loss of the free interstate transport of goods and people from state to state would increase the prospect of the E.U.’s eventual dissolution because the cohesion would be weakened considerably. The unfettered movement of goods and people played a crucial role in the E.U.’s cohesion, given the amount of sovereignty still at the state level.

The want of more governmental sovereignty at the federal level, and thus the inordinate amount retained by the state governments, gets us closer to the underlying weakness compromising the E.U. in responding to the strife between the states. A principle reason for the Union in the first place had been to prevent wars between the states. This purpose had also been salient in the founding of the U.S. and—after 1865—transferring more state sovereignty to the federal level. Even with the eventual imbalance of federal-state power in the U.S., the federal level would have trouble policing the border—putting more pressure on border states such as the Republic of Texas to pick up the slack.

As a manifestation of the state-centric orientation of the E.U., the governors of the states—that is to say, the people governing the states—were the central actors even at the federal level. At the time, the press quoted state officials, even in regard to what the federal role should be. This puts those officials in a conflict of interest, given the obvious temptation they had to propose and advocate for federal policies in their own state’s interest rather than that of the Union. With a parliament, council, and executive branch—each one having a federal official presiding—the federal level should have had its own voice so as to protect the Union’s own interests.

I suspect the underlying culprit at the time was the dominant states’ rights ideology, wherein even the term “state” is resisted—the implication being that the E.U. is somehow an international organization of still sovereign countries rather than a modern federation having its own federal government with a share of sovereignty and including a legislative body whose representatives are elected by E.U. citizens, another body representing the states, an executive branch, and a supreme court, the European Court of Justice. The denial thwarts the E.U. in the seemingly inexorable refusal to shift enough additional governmental sovereignty to the federal level that its institutions, which include a place for the state governments to have their say (as is the case in the U.S. Senate), could have provided a federal measure to address the migrant crisis before the state governors got into a tussle that in turn stood to compromise the E.U. itself.  

[1] Anemona Hartocollis and Dan Bilefsky, “Train Station in Budapest Cuts Off Service to Migrants,” The New York Times, September 2, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Alana Horowitz, “Hungary Ramps Up Crackdown On Refugees,” The World Post, September 14, 2015.
[5] Alison Smale and Melissa Eddy, “Migrant Crisis Tests Core European Value: Open Borders,” The New York Times, September 1, 2015. (Online version is dated August 31, 2015; accessed September 13, 2015).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Willa Frej and Lydia O’Connor, “More European Countries Are Bringing Back Border Controls,” The World Post, September 14, 2105.