Voice

Europe Can Still Save Itself

The EU doesn’t stand a chance against global instability if it can’t control its borders.

IDOMENI, GREECE - FEBRUARY 29: Refugees break the fence on the Greek-Macedonia border on February 29, 2016 in Idomeni, Greece. A group of refugees forced the gate in an attempt to enter Macedonia. 7 refugees were injured during the riot. Tear gas and sound grenades were fired to clear the railway. The transit camp has become overcrowded as refugees continue to arrive from Athens and the Greek Islands. Macedonia opened its border with Greece allowing 580 refugees a day to cross into the country. According to local authorities 7000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, remain stuck at the border as they wait to enter Macedonia to journey to Western Europe. (Photo by )
IDOMENI, GREECE - FEBRUARY 29: Refugees break the fence on the Greek-Macedonia border on February 29, 2016 in Idomeni, Greece. A group of refugees forced the gate in an attempt to enter Macedonia. 7 refugees were injured during the riot. Tear gas and sound grenades were fired to clear the railway. The transit camp has become overcrowded as refugees continue to arrive from Athens and the Greek Islands. Macedonia opened its border with Greece allowing 580 refugees a day to cross into the country. According to local authorities 7000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, remain stuck at the border as they wait to enter Macedonia to journey to Western Europe. (Photo by )

In case you haven’t noticed, the continent of Europe — and especially the European Union — is not in great shape these days. As I laid out earlier this year, there are a host of problems in Europe’s collective inbox — the eurozone crisis, slow economic growth, Ukraine, right-wing xenophobia, resurgent nationalism, the ill effects of past overexpansion, the Brexit debate, and so forth. Any of these challenges would be trouble enough; addressing all of them at once is proving to be nearly impossible.

Given all that, the last thing Europe needed was yet another vexing problem. But that is exactly what it got when tens of thousands of refugees began pouring in from Syria and Iraq, along with the others already arriving from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and elsewhere.

The refugee crisis is probably the greatest of these challenges, in part because it affects several of the others. For starters, it has exposed the cultural heterogeneity between the EU’s original core members and newer entrants such as Poland and Hungary. The recent influx of people from abroad has threatened the Schengen Agreement on open borders, one of the EU’s singular accomplishments (as well as a tangible symbol of unity), and it plays into right-wing xenophobia and ascendant Euro-skepticism. It is undoubtedly reinforcing support for the Brexit campaign, whose success would have grave effects on the entire European project.

Furthermore, efforts to devise a solution to the current crisis have led to all sorts of free riding and cost shifting among EU members, poisoning relations already embittered by the long struggle to save the euro. The refugee crisis has also weakened Europe’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Turkey, leading EU governments who routinely proclaim liberal values to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s recent crackdown on press freedoms. Why? Because they’re desperate for Ankara’s help in dealing with the thousands of unfortunate people who are trying to escape the carnage in the Middle East.

But here’s the real issue: This problem isn’t going away, even if the Syrian civil war ended tomorrow (and it won’t). Why? Because there are millions of other people outside the EU — some of them not yet born — who are going to want to go there in the future.

There are large and growing populations of young people in the rest of the Middle East and in sub-Saharan Africa, and the struggling economies and poorly governed states in which they live will not be able to employ, feed, or absorb them all. Egypt’s population is projected to go from 90 million to 138 million by 2050 (most of them young), and Nigeria’s will rise from 186 million to more than 390 million in the same period. Uganda’s population goes from 38 million today to 93 million in 2050, and Ethiopia’s population will more than double, from 102 million today to 228 million. Because some states in North Africa will probably be unable or unwilling to limit transit across their territory, Europeans can expect to see lots more people come a-knockin’ on their doors in the decades ahead.

This situation poses a serious long-term challenge for the EU as an institution and for its member states. Despite its recent woes, Europe remains a mostly wealthy continent with high levels of personal security and generous welfare provisions. It will remain, for that reason, an attractive magnet for outsiders. Moreover, Europe’s own population is aging and declining, leading to labor shortages and a growing need for immigration. In theory, therefore, Europe should welcome fresh arrivals from other countries.

But wanting some immigrants is not the same as wanting all of them — or wanting them to arrive in sudden and uncontrolled floods. Given the problems that the current refugee crisis has already exposed, the only solution is for the EU to develop a much more robust capacity to control its own borders and regulate who gets in and who has to stay out. There is a certain irony here, given that Europeans used to chide the Warsaw Pact for erecting walls and fences to keep its own population in, and they are understandably scornful (or bemused) when someone like Donald Trump talks about building walls along the U.S. border with Mexico. But given the explosive potential that uncontrolled migration has on an already fragile political situation, the EU had better take this problem seriously and begin to develop a long-term strategy for dealing with it. Syria is just the tip of the iceberg, and if Europe cannot control access to its own territory, it will not be able to control its political fate either.

To grasp the scope of the challenge, consider that the external land border of the EU is nearly 8,000 kilometers long, or 5,000 miles. The EU’s coastlines are estimated to be some 66,000 kilometers, or about 40,000 miles. Even if one leaves out some of the northern maritime boundaries (where immigration is not a big issue), that is still a heck of a lot of territory to monitor and control. To do this, the EU border control agency, Frontex, had an annual budget of 114 million euros in 2015 (a total smaller than the annual budget of the Harvard Kennedy School, by the way). It got a big boost this past year, but it is still an embarrassingly small amount.

Nor do the separate European states have adequate military or police capacity to control their current external and maritime borders, as the flood of recent refugees demonstrates. Front-line states such as Italy or Greece absorb the influx, and it is neither fair nor feasible for the rest of Europe to ask them to take sole responsibility for keeping unwanted immigrants out. Instead, Europe as a whole needs the capacity to defend, monitor, and regulate access to the EU’s present territory. In other words, the EU has to do some real “state-building,” in the old-fashioned sense of being able to protect one’s own home soil.

Unfortunately, Europeans have been steadily disarming themselves over the past half-century, in part because they could count on Uncle Sam to protect them and in part because they believed supranational institutions, the rule of law, and other forms of “civilian power” would be sufficient. While moving to pool sovereignty within Europe, they forgot that a critical element of sovereignty itself was the capacity to decide who’s in and who’s out.

To make matters worse, Europe (or, more precisely, the member states that make up the EU) also gave up most of its capacity to influence events beyond its borders. Those states also lost the ability to shape the calculations of other major powers, including the United States. Unfortunately for them, what other powerful countries do sometimes has large, unforeseen, and decidedly negative effects on Europe, even if that is not what those powerful states intended. Case in point: The United States did not intend to create a serious refugee crisis for Europe when it invaded Iraq in 2003, but by destabilizing the region and providing the conditions from which a group like the Islamic State could emerge, that is in fact precisely what it did.

Back in 2002 and 2003, European leaders like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder understood that attacking Iraq might have unfortunate repercussions for their countries, even if they could not anticipate exactly what might happen or how. Their problem was that they were powerless to halt the Bush administration’s march toward war. Had the EU possessed serious military capabilities of its own, however, and if it had the capacity to take a foreign-policy stance that was independent of its American protector, its collective voice would have carried much greater weight, and even the neoconservatives who conceived and sold the Iraq War might have listened more carefully to European objections. If they had, or if Bush and Cheney had paid attention to European concerns instead of scorning them, the United States might have chosen the smarter option of continued sanctions and intensified U.N. inspections, just as Chirac and others recommended; a foolish war would have been averted; Iraq would still be disarmed, Bush (and Tony Blair) would have been hailed as prudent statesmen instead of as foolish knaves; and the world as we know it today would almost certainly be better off.

All of which leads me to the conclusion that the solution for Europe really is “more Europe.” By this, I don’t mean creating a European fiscal union, strengthening the Brussels bureaucracy, or the other nostrums that have been proposed in recent years. Instead, I mean that Europe should build a serious capacity to guard its own borders, come to broad agreement on who is eligible to enter and who is not, and implement a Europe-wide policy for dealing with those who try to get in and get stopped. Without that capacity, millions of people will keep coming in the years ahead, because they know that getting in is worth the costs and risks.

I’m not suggesting Europe halt all immigration, turn away all refugees, build vast walls and fences, or lay minefields along its Mediterranean coastline. As noted above, Europe needs to encourage some level of immigration in the future, and trying to seal itself off from the rest of humanity simply won’t work. Instead, what Europe must acquire is a demonstrated capacity to regulate and control access to the continent so that the pace does not exceed its capacity to absorb and assimilate the new arrivals.

As Americans know well, managing immigration is a contentious issue, and less-than-perfect solutions are often the best one can do. A serious effort to control Europe’s borders could reinforce xenophobic attitudes and make some Europeans more suspicious of current EU citizens whose countries of origin are different. But the greater danger is migration that alters local communities too rapidly and appears to be beyond the control of local, national, or EU-level authorities. It is the fear of uncontrolled entry that is fueling right-wing attitudes in much of Europe, and the only way to defuse those instincts is to show that the fears are overblown.

Given the strains the EU is presently under, and the likelihood that millions more people may seek to enter in the years ahead, it is imperative for the EU to dramatically improve its capacity to control its own borders. Not every country gets to be an EU member-state, and not every person on the planet should get to be an EU citizen just because they would like to be. There is considerable injustice in that harsh reality, but that does not make it any less real. If Europe wants to start putting its (many) present woes behind it, controlling its own borders is a good place to start.

PIERRE CROM/Getty Images

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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