More than 100,000 migrants, many of them refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, entered Hungary from January to August 2015, the vast majority en route to the more affluent northwestern E.U. states. A record 50,000, many of them Syrians, reached Greece by boat from Turkey in July alone. Meanwhile, Hungary was building a fence along the state’s border with Serbia, where 8,000 migrants were staying in parks, to keep more migrants from entering.
I contend that the disproportionate power of the state governments relative to that of the federal government accounts in part for the difficulty that the E.U. has faced in coming to grips with the tremendous influx. This case suggests why redressing the imbalance in the federal system has been plagued with difficulty.
At the time, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the E.U. Commission—the federal executive branch—criticized state officials for “finger pointing” instead of coming up with viable public policies. He deputy, Frans Timmermans, said in an interview, “Europe has failed. Europe has to get moving. . . . So far, many member states have thought they can go it alone. That doesn’t work. We have to do it together.” In other words, leaving the problem to the states was not working, yet something was impeding united action. I submit that the want of sufficient competencies (i.e., enumerated powers) at the federal level was the main obstacle.
Police disperse migrants at a registration place in Kos, Greece. Should the E.U. leave it to the state governments to handle the crisis? (Yorgos Karahalis/AP)
To be sure, for the E.U.’s general government to warrant additional competencies, it’s governmental machinery must be viewed as fair—that is to say, impartial regarding the various states. In taking sides in favor of creditor states as Greeks were heading to the polls to vote on a referendum in July on whether to accept additional austerity as part of a proposed debt “bailout,” E.U. officials compromised the legitimacy of their respective institutions, and thus of the federal government itself.
The unfairness may have manifested as well in the case of border protection funds. Hungary’s prime minister, Vikto Orban, claimed, “The European Union distributes border protection funds in a humiliating way.” More power states to the west had been able to take the money from the eastern states. He went on to say that the E.U. institutions had failed to offer a coherent solution. I submit that the perception of unfairness and the failure to come up with a viable solution are linked, for granting institutions thought to be unfair additional authority is understandably difficult for the state governments on the “outside.” In other words, to the extent that E.U. institutions are pliable enough to be manipulated by the wealthiest, most powerful states, efforts to move toward a state-federal balance-of-power will face resistance.
 Reuters, “As Migrants Head North, Hungary Decries ‘Humiliating’ EU Policy,” The World Post, August 25, 2015.