The EU’s flawed response to the migrant crisis: Disorientated into the maelstrom

christianschweiger |

This summer Europe witnessed unprecedented events as thousands of migrants embarked on dangerous journeys from the Middle East and further afield to reach the shores of Europe. The growing instability in the Middle East, most of all in Syria which has descended into a state of permanent internal civil war, has resulted in an unprecedented flow of migration towards Europe. As with the other major recent crises the EU is ill prepared to respond swiftly and collectively. The response – or the lack of it- towards the escalating migrant crisis resembles how the EU reacted to the sovereign debt crisis which followed the global financial crisis and externally to the standoff with Russia over Ukraine. All these events illustrate that the EU profoundly lacks a spirit of collective responsibility. It is most noticeable in the failure of the big six (Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain and Poland) to lead the EU towards effective supranational institutions and policies which are fit to address the various internal and external challenges. For too long national governments in the EU have retreated towards the minimum consensus on policy cooperation. Keen to ensure that they maintain a substantial degree of autonomy on sovereign political decision-making, EU leaders have neglected to determine binding common solutions to crucial areas such as economic and fiscal policy, defence and security as well as justice and home affairs.

The eurozone crisis resulted predominantly from systemic weaknesses in the original design of the stability and growth pact. Before the crisis the SGP operated like a gentleman’s agreement between member state governments and the European Commission. Greece and Italy were permitted to join the eurozone in spite of running a permanent and growing structural deficit of more than 100 per cent of their GDP. France and Germany started breaking the annual borrowing limit of maximum three per cent in relation to the GDP in 2002, the year the euro had come into operation as a hard currency. Both countries also started exceed the 60 per cent structural deficit limit[1]. After a period of political disarray and indecision, eurozone governments were ultimately driven to take action by events. When major credit rating agencies started to downgrade individual eurozone economies there was the risk that this would eventually spill over into a substantial loss of financial market confidence in the euro. As Germany and France became increasingly concerned about the risk of a total collapse of the single European currency, Merkel and Sarkozy embarked on a frantic spree of implementing new coordinative policy mechanisms. These policy mechanisms have blurred the distinction between national and EU-level decision-making even more than had already been the case under the existing arrangements. Moreover, as they are predominantly orientated towards elite-level consultations and decision-making, they have worsened the lack of democratic accountability in the EU. Since the onset of the economic crisis the level of public disillusionment with the ability to influence political decisions in the EU consequently has steadily grown. The lowest point of public confidence in the EU occurred in the autumn of 2014 when only 31 per cent of citizens across the EU-28 expressed trust in the Union’s institutions. At the same time the number of those who disagreed with the notion that their voice would count in the EU had also increased substantially, from 53 per cent in 2003 to 66 per cent in the autumn of 2013. In the first half of 2015 the public levels of trust in the EU’s institutions improved slightly towards 40 per cent.

A smaller percentage of people also expressed the opinion that their voice would not count in the EU (50 per cent)[2]. This can be explained by the new Spitzenkandidaten system for the position of European Commission president which was introduced during the campaign for the May 2014 European parliament elections. The nomination of leading candidates for the post by parliamentary groups in the EP gave the impression that citizens would have a direct influence on the appointment of the new Commission president, although the final decision on the appointment still rests with EU leaders in the Council. Although it was obvious that the EU had emerged from the financial crisis with a legitimacy crisis, there were signs that the public was nevertheless willing to give the EU the benefit of the doubt. The latest Eurobarometer research conducted in May this year actually shows that in spite of widespread reservations about the EU’s democratic accountability, the European public nevertheless expressed support for the deepening of political cooperation on the EU level: 69 per cent of citizens were in favour of directly electing the president of the European Commission and 58 per cent favoured the creation of an EU justice ministry. A majority of citizens also expressed support for transferring the decision-making on major policy areas towards the EU level: Environmental issues (72 per cent), combating unemployment (62 per cent), immigration (59 per cent), health and social security (50 per cent)[3].

The public trust in the joint problem-solving capacity of the EU has however not been matched by the reality of the EU’s response to the migrant crisis. The crisis has made it brutally obvious that EU leaders have for too long concentrated on the internal management of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. External affairs have consequently been neglected the management. This was already shown during the Ukraine crisis during the past two years, where the EU’s institutional level played practically no role. The EU High Representative and the External Action Service, which the Lisbon Treaty created to support the EU’s external activities, were almost completely sidelined by a joint intergovernmental diplomatic leadership initiative of France, Germany and Poland. The three countries intervened early to try to negotiate the peaceful handover of powers from disgraced president Yanukovych. When the situation escalated into a quasi civil war between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels over the control of the Eastern provinces of the country, Germany and France once again became active in trying to negotiate a ceasefire. The resulting Minsk agreement between Ukraine and Russia, which came into effect in February this year has so far managed to prevent further major violent clashes within Ukraine. This can nevertheless not conceal the fact that the EU once again repeated the pattern of behaviour it had previously shown over Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Member states remained divided on each of these external challenges member states and failed to uniformly support a common position. In spite of the gradual institutionalisation of the EU external relations since the newly created EU had created a dedicated Common Foreign and Security Pillar in the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, foreign, defence and security policy remains firmly in the hands of national governments.

The same applies to asylum and migration policy, where the EU has practically failed to achieve any substantial institutionalisation. The consensus in the EU in this area has for decades centred on maintaining national regulations. This occurred in spite of the fact that migration has over the years become an increasing burden for the countries who form the Southern borders of the EU. Italy, Greece and Spain have for many years called for greater collective EU support in their struggle to manage the mounting levels of migration from the African continent through the Mediterranean. As in so many other policy areas EU member states were unable to move beyond a lowest denominator consensus which in effect leaves asylum and migration firmly in the hands of national governments. The EU has been working on developing a common asylum system since the late 1990s, which has since developed into a Commission asylum policy plan that member states have now adopted. The plan essentially determines common asylum standards and the need for enhanced cooperation between national authorities on handling asylum applications[4]. In practice the centrepiece of the plan remains the Dublin regulation, which the EU adopted in 1990 in response to an increase in asylum applications. It has been revised twice since with the latest Dublin III regulation having taken effect in January 2013. The core of Dublin is the principle that the member state where an asylum application is first registered remains responsible for administering the case[5]. This provision has shifted the burden of responsibility for dealing with refugees and migrants to the member states at the external borders of the EU. This has been in the interest of the larger member states Germany, France and the UK who were the drivers behind the original directive. The principle of responsibility in the country of first registration has helped to substantially lower the number of asylum applications in the rest of the EU, while the countries at the external Southern border of the EU have had to deal with a flood of new applications. The EU’s policy plan on asylum aspired to put in place as system of ‘well supported and practical cooperation’[6]. In reality the Southern European countries Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus have expressed their dismay at the lack of collective EU support for dealing with the constant and more recently escalating influx of migrants who started arriving by boat from Libya via the Mediterranean. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi warned the EU in June this year that it was facing a ‘Mediterranean migrant emergency’. Renzi put the finger in the wound of the EU’s lack of collective solidarity under the Dublin regulation:

“Whoever has the right to asylum must be welcome in Europe, not just in Italy,  despite the EU’s Dublin regime. But it is inconceivable that one country should  tackle the entirety of this problem on its own. Responsibility and solidarity are concepts that go hand in hand (…) We are at a crossroads and we need to decide if events in the Mediterranean are everyone’s problem, or only that of the countries in the region[7].”

 Renzi’s appeal reflected the obvious failure of the Dublin regime to instil a spirit of collective responsibility for asylum and migration matters amongst EU member states. Even more importantly his intervention pointed towards the EU suffering from a profound leadership problem which has been evident for some considerable time. It is the result of increasingly diverging national interests between the former leadership duo France and Germany, combined with the failure of the other larger member states to offer alternatives. Italy and Spain continue to be preoccupied by their internal economic and political problems. Poland has been active in pushing towards progress in a number of policy areas, such as the Eastern partnership under the European neighbourhood policy, as well as on defence and security issues. Polish influence nevertheless remains limited due to the fact that the country is still considered as a transition country, who has yet to master the crucial hurdle of eurozone entry.  The United Kingdom under the leadership of Conservative prime minister David Cameron has increasingly retreated to the sidelines. Since he came to power in 2010, Cameron has chosen not to engage in any substantial EU policy debate except on those issues where he would like to see the renegotiation of the UK’s membership terms. These include the possibility to permanently opt out from the freedom of movement and from a federal political union which may eventually emerge in the eurozone in the future.

France has been reluctantly following what is essentially German unilateral part-time leadership or ‘reluctant hegemony’[8] under chancellor Angela Merkel’s reign. This semi-leadership is characterised by hesitation, short-term and last minute policy decisions and more recently by a lack of willingness to engage in multilateral consultations. Merkel’s leadership style in essence stems from her professional background as a natural scientist. She has shown a tendency to avoid seeking visionary and long-term strategies for the future of the EU. Instead her leadership style has been markedly passive and mechanical and she frequently micro manages EU affairs like a clinical trial in a laboratory. During the eurozone crisis Merkel was clearly driven by events and struggled to take an active role in shaping them. After months of inaction and hesitation she only became active on the EU level late in 2009 when it had become obvious that the loss of market confidence in the future of the euro had become substantial.  What followed was a political approach which presented the focus on budgetary and macroeconomic supervision and rigidity as being ‘without alternative’. The implementation of multiple layers of binding policy coordination under the ‘Six Pack’ mechanisms have substantially strengthened unelected supranational bodies at expense of the policy autonomy of national governments and parliaments. This raises serious questions about the EU’s democratic accountability and ultimately its legitimacy. The approach is most evident in the way the troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF), including the newly created European Stability Mechanism (ESM), conducts itself as an illegitimate semi-government in eurozone sovereign debt countries, most of all in Greece. Concerns about the impact of these mechanisms on national sovereignty and the possibility that they could be extended further by transforming the European Commission into an executive government for the EU were voiced by a number of countries, most prominently by the UK, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Concerns about the federalisation of the EU were the main reason for the decision of the British government to demand the renegotiation of the UK’s membership terms and to let the British public decide on the future of the membership in a referendum. David Cameron hence demanded safeguards against what he called a ‘one size fits all approach which implies that all countries want the same level of integration’[9].

Merkel has also persistently ignored the wider political and social context of the crisis and rejected the repeated Greek calls for a more comprehensive long-term strategy to ensure that the budgetary consolidation process in the crisis countries would not have lasting detrimental social and political effects. The drama surrounding the deepening sovereign debt crisis in Greece has hence turned into a seemingly endless standoff between Germany as the leading creditor and an Greece as increasingly dependent debtor country. This has inflicted serious damage to the EU’s internal political cohesion. Merkel nevertheless shows little concern for the perception that the eurozone and the wider EU has increasingly fallen under a German dictate.

This pattern is replicated in the current migrant crisis, where Merkel surprised the rest of the EU when she reacted to the sudden vast influx of migrants into Greece with the announcement that Germany’s borders would be open to all refugees. On August 19th the German government had announced that it expected around 800,000 refugees to come to Germany in 2015. On August 31st chancellor Merkel publicly stated that German would manage this (‘Wir schaffen das’)[10]. On September 10th Merkel followed this up during a visit to an asylum camp in Berlin where she announced that Germany would not determine an upper limit when considering asylum applications amongst the current migrant wave[11]. Already on September 8th Merkel’s Social Democratic vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel expressed the view that Germany could accept around 500,000 refugees per year in an interview with the German public TV station ZDF[12]. None of these announcements were previously discussed with Germany’s EU partners, not even with those who are most affected by the increasing influx of migrants via the Balkan route.  After thousands of migrants started to make their way towards Germany via Hungary and Austria on a daily basis the German government again acted unilaterally and announced the temporary suspension of the Schengen agreement by reinstating border controls on September 14th, only a week after Merkel’s and Gabriel’s original statements. At the same time the German government asked the European Commission to develop concrete proposals for the introduction of a refugee distribution quota amongst the EU-28.

The demand for quota are opposed by a number of EU countries, most of all by the United Kingdom and the Central and Eastern European countries. Since their accession to the EU the CEE countries have mostly been compliant policy-takers who did not try to fundamentally challenge the EU’s policy status quo. Many of the CEEs also have close partnerships with Germany which date back to the Cold War era. They have therefore tended to defend Germany’s leadership during the euro crisis against criticism from other member states. The former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski publicly supported Germany’s leading role in 2011 when he stated that he feared German inaction in the EU more than its leadership[13]. Slovak foreign minister Lajcak supported this sentiment when he spoke of his country being relaxed about being part of a ‘greater Germany’[14]. The German government is in danger of destroying this good will towards their leadership because of the patronising way it tries to force the rest of the EU to follow its response to the migrant crisis.  Berlin would probably not have to worry too much if it was only the subject of criticism on the part of the Hungarian government led by populist prime minister Viktor Orban. The fact is however that governments across Central and Eastern Europe are alienated by what they perceive as an uncoordinated and patronising approach to the crisis. The Visegrad 4 countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) have collectively rejected the plans for an EU refugee quota. The V4 are especially affronted by the suggestions which emerged from the German government that countries within the EU who oppose the compulsory quotas may face financial penalties. Slovak prime minister Robert Fico publicly declared his intention to vigorously oppose the plan, even if this may mean blocking progress at the upcoming EU leaders’ summit:

“Never before in the EU did it happen that somebody was punished for their  own opinion. We are a sovereign country, we have the right to name things and have different view to tackle the crisis with migrants.”[15]

The Financial Times reports that CEE diplomats have expressed their anger and astonishment at what they perceive as being shut out of the EU’s diplomacy by Berlin as part of an approach of ‘ “passive aggressive bullying” ‘[16]. Berlin’s conduct is all the more astonishing as the German government should be well aware of the fact that the CEE member states in the EU are still in the process of economic transformation. In most cases they have made substantial progress since the fall of the iron curtain but they nevertheless remain between 20 and 40 per cent below the EU-28’s average GDP per capita[17]. The CEE region remains a low-income region with substantially higher levels of material poverty than the EU average. This explains why public and elite level opposition towards an increase in inward migration from outside the EU remains substantial. Germany’s demands for the acceptance of a refugee distribution quota therefore risk overstretching the CEE region and to feed an already underlying potential for a surge in political support for populist and extremist anti-EU and anti-immigration political parties. The same applies to the EU’s Southern European members, where economically and financially weak countries start to feel overstretched under the double burden of sustained austerity and the resource impact of the migrant crisis[18]. The migrant crisis has already played a substantial role in the campaign for upcoming Greek national election, where the neofascist Golden Dawn party currently polls in third place[19].

The at least temporary collapse of the EU’s Schengen system and the now almost daily blame game between member states on their handling of the migration flow shows that EU is dazed and confused by the speed and severity of events. Without swift and determined collective action the EU risks being slowly sucked into the downward spiral of a credibility crisis, which could eventually turn into an irreversible maelstrom that destroys the European project. The crisis has managed to damage intergovernmental relations between member states and the EU’s external reputation quite significantly. As Germany is clearly incapable of leading the EU out of this crisis it is therefore high time for other members and the Commission to step in to ensure that a lasting collective agreement on migration and asylum policies can be established. Especially the Commission has to tread carefully with this and avoid become the advocate of one country’s (i.e. Germany’s) interests.

A refugee quota system may be part of the immediate solution to events but it is definitely not the answer to resolving the crisis. Instead the EU needs to determine an unambiguous joint system of registering and processing asylum applications. This can only be done effectively if the countries at the EU’s external borders receive substantial financial and logistic support from the EU budget.  Collective budgetary resources will be needed to establish collective fast track asylum registration centres in Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and possibly also in Hungary to ensure that asylum applications are processed quickly and a clear disctinction can be made between genuine refugees and economic migrants. The latter may still be able to obtain permanent residence in an EU member state if national governments unambiguously determine the rules of their domestic immigration policies. Here especially Germany will need to move towards the introduction of a immigration law to ease the burden on its already overstretched asylum system. The EU also needs to make sustained efforts to secure its external borders and to combat human trafficking.  In addition to the planned military missions which are aimed at detaining human traffickers in the Mediterranean, the EU’s border management agency FRONTEX needs to take a more active role in supporting Southern European countries in the policing of the EU’s external borders.

If the EU fails in this momentous task the current practice of reverting to exclusive national solutions will eventually result in the demise of Schengen, which is a cornerstone of the EU’s internal market. Just as with the euro the collapse of a major integration project like Schengen could be the beginning of the end of what the EU has achieved in its more than sixty years long history. The German weekly DER SPIEGEL correctly pointed this out in this week’s leading editorial: ‘Schengen is not any law in the EU’s dense network of regulations. Whoever touches Schengen, the dream of a borderless Europe, touches the Union’s core.’[20] Merkel, Cameron, Hollande and the rest of the EU-28 leaders need to keep this in mind. They must stop dithering and realise what is at stake.

[1] Eurostat, Government Deficit and Debt, available at

[2] European Commission (2015) Standard Eurobarometer 83, available at

[3] Standard Eurobarometer 83.

[4] European Commission (2008) Policy Plan on Asylum: An integrated approach to protection across the EU, COM(2008) 360 final, available at

[5] European Union (2013) Regulation No 604/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council, 26 June, chapter III, article 3, available at

[6] European Union, Common European Asylum System, available at

[7] Matteo Renzi (2015), ‘The Mediterranean migrant emergency is not Italy’s. It is Europe’s’, The Guardian, 23 June, available at

[8] William E. Paterson (2013) ‘The Reluctant Hegemon? Germany moves centre stage in the European Union’, Journal of Common Market Studies 49 (Annual Review): 57-75.

[9] Prime minister David Cameron’s EU speech at Bloomberg, 23 January 2013, available at

[10] Chancellor Angela Merkel summer press conference, 31 August 2015, available at

[11] Süddeutsche Zeitung, ‘Das Grundrecht auf Asyl kennt keine Obergrenze’, 10 September 2015, available at

[12] Der Spiegel (2015) ‘Gabriel hät 500.000 Flüchtlinge pro Jahr für verkraftbar’, 8 September 2015, available at

[13] Sikorski, Radoslaw (2011) ‘Poland and the future of the European Union’, Address at the German Council of Foreign Relations, Berlin, 28 November. Available at Accessed 14 January 2014.

[14] Kristina Mikulova (2013) ‘Central Europe’s Pivot to Germany: What does the U.S. stand to gain’,Huffington Post 1 May, available at   europes-pivot-to-_b_3194342.html

[15] Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico statement on official Facebook page, 15 September 2015.

[16] Duncan Robinson and Henry Foy (2015) ‘Migrant crisis sets Germany at odds with neighbours to the east’, Financial Times, 17 September, available at

[17] High Level Reflection Group (2014), Central Europe fit for the future: Visegrad Group ten years after EU accession,  p. 12.

[18] Ekatimerine (2015) ‘Migrant crisis overwhelms Greek government’, 7 August 2015, available at;

[19] Henry Foy (2015) ‘Greek far right party rides wave of xenophobia’, 17 September 2015, available at

[20] Peter Müller (2015) ‘Der alte Kontinent: In der Flüchtlingskrise ist die EU in Gefahr. Um sie zu bewahren, braucht es Druck und Verständnis’, Der Spiegel 39, 19 September p. 8.