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EU needs a unified response to refugee crisis

European leaders must think and act bigger to address the continent's mounting immigration debacle

September 8, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Sept. 6 more than 15,000 refugees arrived in Germany from Hungary, where they had been stranded for days. Ordinary Germans in Munich turned out to greet and provide the refugees — many of them from Syria, the Balkans, Eritrea, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries — with food, clothing and toys.

But some members of Chancellor Angela Markel’s Christian Democratic party criticized Berlin for opening the doors too wide for the refugees. One might almost forgive Merkel for failing to anticipate the refugee crisis and prepare Germany and the European Union for the current imbroglio. After all, she’s been tied up with the Ukraine conflict and Greece’s debt crisis for months.

However, as with the current refugee crisis, the euro’s travails and hostilities between Ukraine and Russia have hit the EU so hard because Merkel and others in the bloc failed to address them earlier. In large part, this is because the EU’s current incarnation is inadequate to deal with such crises. This is Europe’s most severe refugee crisis since World War II, a crisis that the the union is too weak to address. More than 350,000 refugees have reached the EU since January, compared with only 280,000 in all of 2014. More than 800,000 are expected for 2015.

In addition to the waves of refugees pouring into the continent, the EU faces many other quandaries, including a possible Brexit, the threat of radical Islam, far-right insurgencies within the EU and lack of a common climate policy. These challenges require defining the EU’s priorities, making policy and driving it forward for the benefit of all of Europe.

Merkel has not shown the foresight to address these structural deficits. She prefers to play contentious issues cautiously, waiting until crises peak before she moves on them. For example, the euro crisis would have been more manageable had Merkel and eurozone members reacted swiftly and constructively to warnings about Greece’s debt excess. In the same vein, relations with Russia faded from view as long as there was no fire. And then suddenly there was a war.

To be clear, Merkel is not alone to blame for the families dying in the Mediterranean or trekking the length of the Balkans to make it to the EU's borders. France appears even less capable of picking up the baton, while the United Kingdom is not even interested.

By failing to step up and take on more responsibility for the refugees, as well as for many of Europe’s other pressing issues, EU members have forced a reluctant Germany to take the reins. Germany cannot take on the complex, transnational origins of the refugee crisis alone the way a capable EU could.

It's obvious that the so-called Dublin Regulation, which assumes the sanctity of the EU’s borders and requires refugees to register in the country in which they enter, simply doesn't work.

The influx of refugees into the EU is a symptom of an array of critical issues that it has failed to tackle. The origins of the current migration flows are multifaceted and require long-term, far-sighted policy responses. These include the formulation of common EU immigration and asylum laws, the integration of the western Balkans into the EU of the Roma in member states, the resolution of the Syria conflict, the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan, climate protection and, in general, the amelioration — or at least reduction of — poverty in the developing world.

It’s a mighty list and requires significant time and resources from the EU, as well as the support of other major players such as the United Nations, the United States and Russia. Yet, it is the only way. 

The EU is best placed to respond to the transnational issues that are exacerbating the refugee flow. But it’s been hampered by the lack of a unified vision. EU’s leaders have allowed the bloc to be ruled by national egoism, with glaring democracy deficits and dominated by the biggest member states — not an elected European parliament. Its foreign service plays second fiddle to Germany and no one appears to mind much.

For starters, the EU’s 28 members have almost no common immigration policies. It’s obvious that the so-called Dublin Regulation, which assumes the sanctity of the EU’s borders and requires refugees to register in the country in which they enter, simply doesn't work. Given their porous borders, frontline states such as Greece and Hungary pay the highest price. Brussels has been trying to harmonize its asylum law for years without result. The hodgepodge of asylum regulations and procedures vary from country to country, exacerbating the crisis and raising tensions between the southern countries and the northern capitals.

Admittedly, immigration is a prickly issue when much of the continent is struggling with high unemployment. But Europe needs immigration and could greatly benefit from it in the long run. Germany, France and the Nordic countries should lead by example, instituting comprehensive immigration policies that could pay pensions in the future. They could look to Canada's model to attract skilled migrants who contribute to its economic growth.

From the war in Syria to the crisis in Libya and the Balkans’ poorhouse, the current drivers of refugees require a unified EU response. Its half-hearted efforts to extend membership to the Balkans has left most people there worse off than they were 20 years ago. The fortunes of the Roma have not improved one iota 10 years after the Decade of Roma Inclusion, a European project designed to eradicate discrimination against Roma and close the gaps between Roma and the rest of society. The EU hasn’t helped find solutions for the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan. France is the only EU member that is pushing for a resolution to the Syrian conflict. The EU simply doesn’t have the gravitas it to formulate a coherent foreign policy response.

Germany’s decision to accept the 15,000-plus refugees from Hungary was a morally responsible gesture and a step in the right direction. But it was reactive and will not lessen the flood of the war-weary and impoverished into the EU. In addition to finding enough beds for the newcomers, the EU must think and act much bigger to address the mounting crisis.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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