The most over-used word in the European Union’s idiosyncratic lexicon is “crisis.” When Europe’s national leaders convene in Brussels on Monday for a summit meeting with Turkey, they will be discussing not simply migration, but “the migration crisis.”
The beauty of the term “crisis” — for politicians and journalists alike — is that while conjuring up a sense of drama, importance and urgency, it says nothing about actors or intention. As with the eurozone crisis, the BSE crisis or even the empty-chair crisis of 1965-66, the term “migration crisis” is a convenient catch-all that covers a multitude of inter-related issues.
Whether or not the circumstances do amount to a crisis is a question much avoided. Although politicians frequently seek to reassure their citizens (and the financial markets) that things are still under control, they learnt long ago that to deny that a crisis exists is fraught with danger.
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In January 1979, for instance, then British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was famously weakened by the headline: “Crisis? What crisis?” The Sun newspaper portrayed these questions as direct quotations from a prime minister who was returning, sun-tanned, from an international conference in the Caribbean. What Callaghan had actually said on his arrival at Heathrow Airport was somewhat different — he rejected a journalist’s suggestion that Britain was witnessing “mounting chaos” because of strikes by lorry drivers and the accompanying disruption of petrol supplies. But the denial stuck, and Callaghan, who headed a Labour minority government, was portrayed by his Conservative rival, Margaret Thatcher, as being out of touch. Five months later, he was out of office and Thatcher’s reign had begun.
Journalists have different reasons for ducking the question of whether the term crisis is justified: They are vocationally disposed to exaggerate those qualities of drama, importance and urgency that can propel events — whether routine or unexpected — over the threshold for a full-scale “crisis.”
On the face of it, little exaggeration has been needed on this occasion. The perilous boat journeys, the streams of bedraggled refugees, the barbed wire and occasional tear gas at the border crossings, these have provided the television cameras with all too much drama. Borderless travel has been suspended in various parts of Europe. The EU has convened a succession of emergency meetings, as well as executing some swift U-turns in policy towards Turkey. The symptoms of a crisis appear to be present.
And yet, the question “is this a crisis?” is worth asking more rigorously, in a way that cuts through that vagueness over actors and intention — the questions “for whom?” “how?” and “why?”
Take the term “crisis” at face value to mean a decisive turning-point, or potential turning-point, in the health of a government or an economy. Measured by that yardstick, the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq is indeed a crisis for some countries in the European Union. Greece’s infrastructure, already creaking, has been put under intense pressure, particularly on some of the islands. It’s a crisis also for Germany, the destination to which so many refugees aspire. The German political establishment was rocked by Angela Merkel’s brave declaration that the borders should not be closed, which created ructions within each of the two main political parties, and between the federal government and the regions, which protested about the strain on local services. Sweden too is destabilized, albeit on a smaller scale: the liberal instincts of its ruling establishment tested both by the numbers of migrants and the opportunism of right-wing populists.
The countries that lie on the migratory routes have also felt moments of acute pressure: especially because the uncoordinated closure of some national borders created sudden concentrations of migrants. Whether those border closures did amount to fully-fledged crises in all of Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria is to be doubted, but clearly those states have, like Italy and Malta, been more exposed to the flows of refugees than, say, Finland or Portugal.
That point would seem obvious, but it is worth spelling out because it goes to the heart of the nature of the so-called migration crisis: It is a crisis for some parts of Europe but not others. And when the leaders of the member states confer on Monday with Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister of Turkey, they will have markedly different levels of interest in the outcome. Where the EU is not being honest with itself is in referring to a “migration crisis” that is not perceived as such by all 28 states.
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In a speech on Friday in The Hague, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, struck a reproachful note. “We are the richest continent in the world — 500 million citizens — and seem not to be able to cope with 1 to 2 million refugees reaching our continent,” he said. The implication of his reproach was that 2 million refugees ought to be manageable since it is relatively small compared to a host population 250 times larger. Perhaps, but only if the stresses are evenly spread. In reality, the 2 million are concentrated in only parts of the EU, and therefore alongside only a part of that total population of 500 million.
Those like Juncker and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who believe that the migration crisis has to be tackled by the EU working together, have not yet persuaded all national leaders that what is plainly a crisis for Greece and Germany will have similarly disastrous effects for other countries. Last week Juncker warned against the break-up of the Schengen zone of border-free travel, saying: “The internal market will not survive this refugee crisis, if we do not come to a common understanding on securing our external borders and if we do not put a stop to the politics where every country unilaterally does what it pleases. Restoring borders between two Schengen countries will destroy our common market.”
But on Schengen as well, there are great imbalances of interest. Schengen matters much more in those densely populated areas where cross-border interconnections are very developed – such as the Benelux countries and the border regions of France and Germany. But Schengen matters less in other parts of Europe. The advantages of Schengen are enjoyed unevenly, and the disbenefits from its dissolution would be suffered unevenly.
As for the governments of United Kingdom and Ireland, which stand outside the Schengen zone, they have yet to be persuaded that the Schengen zone’s problems are theirs too. Or, at least, they have yet to adopt such arguments publicly. But in his heart of referendum-campaigning hearts, David Cameron will know that much of his electorate are unable to distinguish i) between migration and free movement of people and ii) between migration into the EU and migration within the EU. So Cameron’s chances of winning his Brexit referendum may rest on the state of the migration crisis.
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Even if Tusk, Merkel and Juncker can persuade others round the European Council table to take the migration “crisis” as seriously as they themselves do, the EU should be circumspect about how it responds to that crisis.
We learnt during the banking crisis and the related eurozone crisis that, compared to national governments, the EU does not have the machinery, the resources or the decision-making mechanisms for crisis response. During the course of the eurozone crisis, various measures to prop up the eurozone were adopted: a European Stability Mechanism, the promise of “whatever it takes” to save the euro, the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions program.
The migration crisis is similarly prompting the EU authorities down the path of institutional innovation. A new mechanism for giving funds to Turkey was devised in October. Last week the Commission proposed legislation that would allow the Commission to deliver emergency assistance within EU territory (mirroring its crisis and humanitarian aid work overseas). It did so on the basis of a treaty article that does not require the proposed legislation to be approved by the European Parliament.
That article (122.1) reads that “the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may decide, in a spirit of solidarity between member states, upon the measures appropriate to the economic situation, in particular if severe difficulties arise in the supply of certain products, notably in the area of energy.” It is a fair bet that the drafters of this treaty article did not have in mind the provision of tents, food and other basic necessities to refugees.
And when the legislation is in place, the Commission and Council will be able to dispense funds from the budget line so created, without needing to seek the repeated approval of the European Parliament.
This is emotive, sensitive stuff. As the television cameras proclaim, there are refugees in dire need of urgent help. The Commission argues that its existing funding mechanisms (the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund) although “fairly quick” are “not quick enough” and so “existing instruments need to be complemented by a special emergency support mechanism.”
“Need,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The Commission is attempting to defy nature, forgetting the European Union was not conceived as an instrument of crisis response. And one of the reasons that it does not have the mechanisms of true crisis response that typically we find in a nation-state — an army, a police force, the powers to requisition people and assets — is that it does not have the mechanisms of democratic accountability. And just as the measures adopted or imposed during the eurozone crisis magnified the democratic deficit of the eurozone institutions, so too the migration crisis could see an increase in the EU’s emergency powers without any compensatory increase in accountability.
The discussions with Turkey over the coming days will present the EU with a painful dilemma: how much value do they put on democracy and respect for human rights when put in the balance against their desire to get Turkey’s assistance to stem the flow of refugees into Europe?
But that dilemma is not confined to Turkey, even though it may be starker across the Bosporus. It is a dilemma to be found also across the EU’s own territory — in Athens, in Budapest, in Berlin and in Brussels — what can and cannot be justified by those ever-present crises?
Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.