Europe is in the process of regaining its self-confidence. The Austrians, Dutch and French resisted the seductions of separation and nationalism in recent elections – in contrast to the British and Americans. Citizens are taking new pleasure in the European Union, and French president Emmanuel Macron is injecting new energy into a once timid community of states.
But vitality and optimism are tender plants that can quickly be trampled if the number of refugees fleeing toward Europe across the Mediterranean rises once again. Brexit and Donald Trump may have inadvertently soldered the EU states back together, but it remains to be seen whether the recent rise in popular solidarity can triumph over the nationalist tendencies when push comes to shove. The pressure exerted by hundreds of thousands of refugees in the fall of 2015 showed that no other issue is so capable of dividing the European Union as much as refugee policy. The EU must not allow itself to be as helpless and divided as it was two years ago.
The current situation in Italy cannot yet be compared to the Balkans in 2015. While over the past six months the number of new arrivals increased by around 20 percent to 83,650, few have begun heading north. It is therefore all the more alarming when Austrian government representatives, seeing a spike in the numbers within a single weekend, go on tirades about closing the border at the Brenner Pass, and deploying soldiers to then do so. In the hope of becoming chancellor after the parliamentary elections in October, the country’s conservative foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, has been especially vocal about his anti-refugee policy. To reach his goal he has even hinted he would sacrifice cooperation with neighboring EU countries.
No other issue is so capable of dividing the European Union as much as refugee policy.
South of the Austrian border, Italy’s refugee policy has not been cause for complaint. Unlike in the past, Rome is not simply allowing migrants to move on to other countries. Instead, Italy is shouldering its share of the responsibility, and more. The other 27 EU states need to do the same. Currently, other these member states have taken on the redistribution of only 7,100 refugees from Italy. Austria, Poland and Hungary, however, haven’t taken a single one. As politics in Vienna have shown, right-wing populism can have a profound effect even if its parties don’t win elections.
But redistribution of new arrivals can’t be the answer to migration across the central Mediterranean coast. Most of those boarding boats for Italy have no right to asylum. Among Nigerians, the largest group to arrive this year, the percentage deserving protection is around one in four. Among Bangladeshis, the second largest group, the figure is far lower.
Which is why there must be a more effective way of returning those refugees who aren’t granted asylum to their countries of origin. Perhaps even more importantly, these refugees should be discouraged from attempting the often deadly journey. As harsh as the poverty and the lack of future prospects may be in various West African countries, is it really beneficial for Nigerians or Senegalese migrants to spend so much money on the journey and potentially endure enormous suffering only to face the choice in Europe between deportation and illegality? Aid organizations such as Pro Asyl should ask themselves this question when speaking out about supposed right-wing attacks on European asylum laws. Tighter border controls by the EU and patrols by the Libyan coast guard are not examples of that.
Indeed, the miserable situation of refugees never disappeared, but now it has thrust itself back into public attention.
Indeed, the miserable situation of refugees never disappeared, but now it has thrust itself back into public attention. What can the European Union to make sure the current situation doesn’t escalate into another all-out crisis? First and foremost member states need to take uniform action. This means offering financial incentives for the countries of origin to facilitate the creation of repatriation treaties. It also means supporting Italy by sending their own border guards as well as bureaucratic experts in asylum law and deportation. And, inevitably, helping also involves accepting refugees from Italy who are granted asylum, as well as establishing legal and safe channels for those who do qualify for asylum by flying them in, granting student stipends and issuing work visas.
In the long term, Europeans must pool their resources in order to help the continent economically – that is, as a whole. Clearly, Chancellor Angela Merkel has started taking the issue seriously. Placing Africa high on the agenda of the G20 summit is one sign of that. Improvement takes time and the determination. Nationalism and populism are far from overcome in Europe, as the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently warned. After all, in countries like Poland and Hungary, rightwing populists are currently running the show.
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