The Observer view on the future of the EU | Observer editorial

The migrant and refugee crisis highlights Europe’s flaws in working together

In his 1946 Zurich speech, delivered the year after Germany’s surrender, Winston Churchill spoke of a remedy to Europe’s problems: “To recreate the European family… and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” What would Churchill have to say about the European response to the issues that have afflicted our continent in recent months?

Whether the terrible image of the body of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach or a British journalist’s eyewitness account of a Greek pensioner driving himself off a harbour, this has been a summer in which the human face of Europe’s twin crises has tragically revealed itself. And the nature of Europe’s response to two different, but intertwined, predicaments – the fallout from the eurozone crisis and the increasing movement of refugees and migrants into Europe – raises serious questions about the very purpose of the European project.

The technical and dry language that characterises much of the debate about Brussels makes it easy to forget the beginnings of the EU as an idealist project: European leaders coming together to say “never again” in the wake of a catastrophic war. And so the EU’s founding fathers created an economic union to promote interdependence and prevent conflict. At the heart of the project lay a fundamental belief: that the long-term national and collective interests of European nation states were intertwined and that European peace and prosperity depended on national politicians looking beyond the short-term national interest.

Fast forward to the present day and both the eurozone and refugee and migrant crises have served to highlight the difficult but critical existential questions now facing Europe. What does it mean to be a member of the European Union? Do member states still share the values that underpinned its original foundations? Has an extended period of simultaneously deepening and broadening the union strengthened or eroded the pan-European solidarity so critical to its success? And the response to both crises has thrown into sharp relief the tensions between the European collective interest and liberal values on the one hand and short-term national interests and anti-immigration sentiment on the other.

We use the word crisis to delineate the growing movement of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa in recent months, but the truth is that while it is a devastating crisis for the regions from which these people flee, the crisis on European soil is one manufactured by the terrible lack of a pan-European response. What is needed is clear: collectively funded reception centres, compulsory asylum quotas for all member states; co-ordinated resettlement to create more legal routes through which people can travel to seek refuge, while tackling people-trafficking at source; more support for middle-income countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that are playing host to vastly greater numbers of refugees than Europe; and the promotion of sustainable development in regions experiencing conflict rather than simply channelling in short-term aid.

Instead, we’ve seen chaos. Many member states refusing to revisit the Dublin regulation, which has seen some of Europe’s poorest countries trying to process huge numbers of migrants and refugees with no support; little investment in resettlement; deterrent fences being erected by countries such as Hungary, even as Germany and Sweden have opened their doors. The consequences have been terrible: people suffocating in refrigerator lorries; families drowning; people locked in trains. Our failure to respond collectively means that, alongside terrible dictators and religious fundamentalists, we Europeans must also bear some responsibility for the chaos.

The fallout from the eurozone crisis has interacted with the response to the refugee and migrant crisis in two ways. First, countries such as Italy and Greece have felt the worst effects of both: states that have received the greatest numbers of refugees are also those whose peoples have been dismally failed by governments that cooked the books to join the single currency and EU institutions that looked the other way.

But second, the single currency, by pushing integration deeper than pan-European solidarity could support, has begun to undermine, rather than strengthen, that solidarity. The common European currency represented the pinnacle of deeper integration, requiring a unified approach to both monetary and fiscal policy and transfers from richer to poorer countries in order to make it work. But the eurozone crisis accentuated the differential impacts of the financial crisis in Europe and has resulted in more citizens moving from poorer to richer states, contributing to the growing anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiment creeping into political discourse across the continent. Thus it has made a pan-European response to the refugee crisis less, not more, likely.

In simultaneously pursuing deeper and broader integration, has the European Union overstretched itself? While original EU-bloc countries such as Germany, Italy and France have backed a common European response to migration and asylum, there has been strong opposition from newer members in the east such as Hungary, Poland and the Baltic states: just last week, the Hungarian prime minister made incendiary comments about the refugee crisis threatening Europe’s status as a Christian continent. These growing fissures between old and new Europe risk undermining the momentous achievement that was Europe’s eastwards expansion and demonstrate how, in retrospect, European leaders could have prioritised the broadening of the union over its deepening.

Europe urgently needs to return to the vision of its founding fathers: an idealist project, pragmatically realised, to unite a continent in the face of internal and external threats. It must find a resolution to the eurozone crisis that avoids pushing the people of Europe towards a deeper political integration than they would support, and it must concentrate on building consensus across a bigger and more diverse Europe.

Today’s European leaders should pay heed to Churchill’s warning: “The League of Nations did not fail because of its principles or connections. It failed because these principles were deserted by those states who brought it into being… This disaster must not be repeated.” The European Union is far from perfect but it has shaped for the better not just the fortunes of our continent, but global patterns of transnational co-operation. It must be saved, even if that means stepping back from the deeper integration to which some European leaders remain attached.

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Observer editorial

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