The EU’s work in advancing peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights on the European continent in the decades since the Second World War has to be commended. As Herman Von Rompuy stated, “it’s the first time that the European continent has enjoyed sixty years of peace in its long history”, which has been characterised by “spears and swords, cannons and guns, trenches and tanks, and more”. The EU has made enormous contributions towards peace, stability and democracy in Europe and beyond, and its virtuous efforts have been recognised by its award of a Nobel Prize, yet the current migrant crisis necessitates a reevaluation of whether Europe is living up to the spirit of the Union and that of a modern liberal democracy. Europe’s reaction to the migrant crisis has led many to level accusations of intransigence and hypocrisy against EU institutions and its constituent member states. For contemporary Europeans who enjoy high standards of living, peace and stable democracies, the value of peace, stability and surety are ill appreciated. The struggles of many fleeing distant conflicts may be difficult to resonate with, particularly when the opponents of openness and acceptance towards these individuals point to the resources, burden and dangers of accepting their desire to flee to Europe.
Admittedly, the wholesale admittance of refugees to Europe is not the end solution to these challenges. The EU must also be commended for its past efforts in spreading democracy to the Mediterranean states of Greece, Portugal and Spain when emerging from dictatorial rule. EU membership consolidated their fragile democratic systems and ensured stability for Europe’s southern border followed by the addition of several Eastern European states in the post-Cold War period. It is vital for the EU to continue to help develop and consolidate stable democracies along its external borders, prioritising these efforts over narrow national geopolitical interests. It is vital for the EU to continue and strengthen efforts to allow for the emergence of democratic and stable governments across North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East. It was Western government’s congenial relationships with Libyan, Egyptian, Tunisian and Syrian despots that allowed these regimes to persevere. Presently, the EU is enthusiastically embracing Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, despite his government’s erosion and silencing of the free press, its intimidation of the constitutional court among other democratic grievances. These are the first steps in dismantling a hard won secular democracy. The EU and its member states have dismissed these concerns, which may precipitate another crisis on its borders in the long term, in an overdue attempt to find a solution to the Syrian civil war and its resulting crises. With the United Nations’ refugee agency having stated that the proposals under the EU agreement with Turkey, to send refugees from the EU to Turkey, would contravene their right to protection under European and international law. The EU is failing to live up to its founding principles in ignoring human rights concerns regarding Ankara.
The EU was born out of a crisis, in the post WW2 period and the migrant crisis is the biggest challenge to the EU since the economic crisis. With the Schengen zone, a pillar of European unity, under threat as member states seek to reintroduce temporary border checks to curb the flow of migrants. The EU is facing a huge existential crisis, with the ghosts of nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance beginning to reemerge in several countries. In my short life, the EU has continually promised and claimed evolved capabilities and mechanisms to act and intervene in conflicts or crisis after inadequate responses to events such as the breakup of Yugoslavia. This crisis has exposed the EUs lack of preparedness, as frontline member states such as Greece and Italy are overwhelmed by the influx and lack of European solidarity. The crisis has been polarising for member states, with only Germany taking up the mantle and assuming the economic and political risks, while others such as hardline Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, opting to disregard EU law in handling the flow of migrants, to little consequence.
The European Union was forged in crisis and this migrant crisis is an opportunity to the EU to deepen its integration and thus its capabilities. Jean Monnet, one of the EU founders once stated that “Europe will be forged in crises”, though there is little evidence of this particular crisis strengthening desire for an ever closer union with the potential for a UK exit and growing anti EU and migrant sentiment being reflected in electoral outcomes across the Union.