People suffocated in trucks, long columns of refugees on highways, dead children washed ashore – after the horrible images of this summer, nothing is the same in Europe. And things will never be the same again.
In the coming years and decades, Europe will remain a magnet for all the people who seek protection from persecution, war, poverty and hopelessness. Recognizing this fact is a part of the new “honesty” that the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, called for in his speech on the state of the European Union this week.
He emphasized that Europe is a place of exile, a place of hope, and that Europeans can be proud of that – bearing in mind their history of war, flight and expulsion.
He’s right. With its most recent proposals for meeting the challenge of the refugee crisis and the waves of migration, the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, is finally drawing the necessary conclusions. The legal status quo has not been in line with reality for a while now. Mr. Juncker is moving to change this situation.
It remains to be seen whether the E.U.’s member states will follow him. The chances aren’t so bad, because the pressure is greater than ever. And influential Germany is adhering to the Brussels position. There’s even praise to be heard coming from Berlin for the ideas to be heard in Europe’s capital – something that seldom occurs.
On taking office about a year ago, Mr. Juncker made a new policy on migration one of the European Commission’s priorities; for example, he promised more money for the E.U.’s border protection agency Frontex, and called for a more consistent deportation procedure as well as an expanded legal framework on immigration.
Whoever wants to preserve the continent’s reputation for generosity cannot avoid closer cooperation in the face of migration.
Nevertheless, the public perception that the E.U. is not doing enough has intensified. Its refugee commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has remained a nondescript figure, and for the most part, the Commission has left member states to overcome the problems on their own.
It has failed to come up with ideas to tackle the crisis, has been unable to find a common denominator among national interests and given little consideration to suggestions made by the European Parliament.
In general, the mill in Brussels grinds so slowly and sometimes so delicately that all the compromises often kick solutions far into the future. The refugee crisis is a classic example of this. Since the beginning of this year, more than 500,000 people have made their way to Europe. In response to this stress test of its refugee policies, however, Europe cannot remain in a state of debilitating shock.
What is essential for overcoming the crisis is a rapid distribution of initially 160,000 asylum seekers according to fixed quotas, in order to relieve Hungary, Greece and Italy. This can only be the beginning. In the mid-term, the European Commission wants to establish a permanent mechanism in order to put an end to the eternally recurring discussions about a fair distribution of refugees.
Countries that are justified in citing compelling reasons should be allowed at least provisionally to opt out of accepting refugees, but in return be required to make a financial contribution. In this way, Brussels is primarily accommodating the Eastern Europeans, who are skeptical about quotas.
The Commission’s proposals are the beginning of the end of the Dublin System, according to which asylum seekers must apply for protection and remain in the country where they first set foot on E.U. soil. There is little reason to mourn the passing of this system: It is unsuitable for responding to the massive pressure of migration on Europe. It has long been time for a reform that imposes obligations on all European countries.
The refugee crisis is putting Europeans to the test: How seriously are they committed to solidarity and unity? Is the European spirit still slumbering somewhere, also in the East?
Whoever wants to preserve the continent’s reputation for generosity – and most citizens benefit significantly from this generosity – cannot avoid closer cooperation in the face of migration: In protecting external borders, in a more consistent procedure for deporting rejected asylum seekers and also in the international arena. Europe must project a more unified and decisive foreign policy in order to effectively contain trouble spots like Syria.
The countries of the European Union cannot now leave Mr. Juncker hanging. On Monday, the bloc’s 28 interior ministers will have an opportunity to show their colors. The aim of the special meeting is to reach agreement at least on obligatory quotas for distributing refugees. “I expect all countries to cooperate,” said Mr. Juncker. Hopefully the head of the commission will not be disappointed.
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