Europe has had a tumultuous month. First, the European Union’s heads of state and government met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to iron out the details of a controversial deal aimed at stemming the flow of people, mainly Syrians, coming to the continent. Then, on March 22nd, Brussels was struck by terrorist attacks that killed 32 people and wounded more than 200. Despite no obvious connection between refugees and terrorism, links are again being made, as they were after the Paris attacks last November. The result will likely be potential policy solutions becoming further lost in confusion.
There is no easy fix for the EU’s refugee crisis. It is one of the most difficult challenges the bloc has ever encountered. The causes of its complexity are threefold. First, the EU does not hold all the cards: as long as conflicts fuel displacement, refugees will continue to search for safety on the continent.
Second, this is one of the most intimate crises the EU has experienced. It affects the populations of member states on a personal level. Some countries, mostly in Western Europe, are used to welcoming asylum seekers and, more generally, migrants from other parts of the world in large numbers. But others, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, are not. In these countries, the issue raises major questions of identity and of the composition of society.
Finally, the EU lacks the political flexibility to deal with the problem. Policies exist on how refugees should be treated in the bloc, as well as which countries are responsible for the Schengen area’s external borders, but the current crisis has shown that both policies were devised for normal circumstances. Recent fraught attempts by the European Commission to “resettle” 160,000 refugees across the 28 member states provide evidence of the size of the task.
That agreement was the result of political pressure and strong-arm negotiations. Instead of offering a hand to refugees, several countries have reinstated border controls and built fences. Some of these states may have legitimate, and even legally justified, reasons for their actions. As Hungary’s government has repeatedly explained, Greece’s failure to protect the EU’s external border has forced it to step up. However, the forceful recent response of Hungarian authorities to the refugee crisis has been concerning. Moreover, several countries have faced a backlash in domestic politics fed by populist parties and ideas, and lackluster efforts to explain Europe’s duty to asylum seekers.
The Paris attacks of last year anchored in many people’s mind that terrorists have infiltrated the flow of people crossing Europe’s borders. The Brussels attacks will not make the situation any easier. Migrants, refugees, and terrorists have almost become synonymous in the minds of the public. The whole debate in Europe over who should be allowed to stay and where they should be hosted has become unhealthy. Comments from recently re-elected Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico that all Muslims in the country should be put under surveillance are just one example. The Brussels attacks have already prompted reactions in Poland, with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo reneging on a commitment to take thousands of refugees. Tougher stances elsewhere are likely to emerge.
The focus so far has been on securing the EU’s external border, with the task largely left to individual countries—an economically shattered Greece foremost among these. The EU cannot be viewed as a homogeneous bloc on this issue. Despite all 28 EU countries adhering to the same principles, each society remains different and sees a problem through its own prism. A reflection of this state of affairs is that the EU has neither a common migration policy nor a common asylum policy. The refugee crisis makes those policy projects ever more sensitive.
The instruments that the EU does have, and those new ones that member states are willing to explore are mostly concerned with limiting and containing. Officials in Brussels have boosted the role and the budget of Frontex—the agency in charge of border management—and talks of a European border and coast guard are becoming increasingly concrete. The approach is taking on a much more securitized and fragmented nature. Further attacks such as those in Paris and Brussels will only heighten concerns and possibly see a doubling down of this approach.
In this climate, the revitalization of EU talks with Turkey has taken on something of an air of desperation. Ankara is a difficult partner for Brussels and trust between the two parties is fragile. Nonetheless, there is distinct lack of alternatives. When the first agreement between the two was established last November, it gave the crude impression that the EU was asking Turkey to control its borders in exchange for €3 billion ($3.4 billion USD) in funding.
Still, the flux of refugees did not stop with that deal; the EU wanted Turkey to do more, in exchange for more. The new agreement struck on March 18th contained a contentious 1:1 swap scheme. According to this plan, for each Syrian migrant “not in need of international protection” Europe sends back to Turkey, the EU will accept one Syrian asylum seeker from Turkey. No one really knows how this byzantine deal will be enforced or monitored and it will likely face legal challenges to its implementation.
It seems there is such a level of powerlessness within the EU to deal with this crisis in a way that is acceptable to all member states and their citizens, that leaders are often left pursuing options without concern for feasibility or legality. While it is common to say that the EU gets its act together in times of crisis, it is difficult to see how it can achieve that this time around. Given this, ill-considered and politically motivated reactions to attacks such as those in Belgium must be avoided at all costs.
Vivien Pertusot is Head of Brussels Office for the French Institute of International Relations.