The wave of migrants surging into the European Union (EU) poses a historic challenge for European integration. Today in Strasbourg, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg proposed that all twenty-eight EU member states accept binding quotas for accepting refugees and develop a common European list of safe countries of origin, declaring, “We need more Europe in our asylum policy. We need more Union in our refugee policy.”
If implemented, the plan would bring welcome coherence to what has been a flailing EU response. Unfortunately, European countries are deeply divided on the proposal’s merits. The crisis has once again exposed the dilemma at the heart of the “European project”: namely, how much sovereignty should Europe’s nations be willing to surrender to preserve solidarity within the continent? How this debate plays out will help determine whether EU continues to integrate in a federalist direction or devolves into a looser confederation of states that the French leader Charles de Gaulle conceived as a “Europe des patries.”
Juncker’s idea is that EU member states should reallocate a total of 160,000 refugees from Italy, Greece, and Hungary. He said, “We now need immediate action. We cannot leave Italy, Greece and Hungary to fare alone. Just as we would not leave any other EU Member State alone. For if it is Syria and Libya people are fleeing from today, it could just as easily be Ukraine tomorrow.” Juncker’s plan calls on EU member states to more equitably share the burden of asylum seekers. He couches his proposal in the language of EU idealism, as an expression of the humanitarian values that have defined postwar Europe. Today, he underscores, “It is Europe today that represents a beacon of hope, a haven of stability in the eyes of women and men in the Middle East and in Africa. That is something to be proud of and not something to fear.”
Alas for Juncker, pride and fear are at war in Europe. European governments disagree on the merits of his proposal, which touches on a foundational principle of sovereignty: the authority to determine not only who enters a nation’s territory, but also who is entitled to stay.
To be sure, when it comes to sovereignty, the members of the EU lost their virginity long ago. Since the Treaty of Rome (1957) establishing the original European Economic Community, members of the expanding bloc have agreed to “pool” sovereignty in ways unimaginable for most Americans. The EU’s supranational features include a powerful European Commission able to set regulatory standards in innumerable areas, a European Parliament composed of legislators elected from member states, and a European Court of Justice empowered to override domestic legislation at odds with EU law. Most recently, the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) created a new president of the European Council, a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and an External Action Service—a sort of EU State Department. Finally, the 19 members of the Eurozone have adopted a common currency, a European Central Bank, and (in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis) a banking union.
Within EU itself, member states have also accepted free movement of EU citizens, including for reasons of employment. And, at least on paper, they have endorsed common principles and procedures for handling applicants for refugee status, through the 2013 Common European Asylum System.
The Juncker proposal goes a step further, however, by mandating shares of refugee admissions. And in the minds of some Europeans, it is a step to far. The plan’s two most influential champions are Germany and France, whose governments believe that a mandatory, continent-wide commitment by EU members is the only way to equitably distribute the burden of asylum-seekers. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has already committed Germany to take in 500,000 refugees annually for the foreseeable future, is understandably enthusiastic about sharing the migrant load. French President Francois Hollande, whose country already hosts large minority populations, has come around in support of the plan, and France has committed to take an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years.
Juncker’s problem is that a lot of other Europeans aren’t buying it—and believe that any national contributions to the common effort should at the discretion of member states, rather than mandates handed down from Brussels. This sentiment is strongest in Eastern Europe, which has less recent experience with accepting refugees and assimilating immigrants from outside Europe. In a joint statement, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary declared that any proposal “leading to [the] introduction of [a] mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable". Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gone so far as to order the building of a razor-wire fence along his country’s 109-mile frontier with Serbia. But opposition to Juncker’s proposal is by no means restricted to the East. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to accept up to twenty thousand refugees by 2020, but emphasized that Britain is not obligated to participate in the Juncker proposal to distribute refugees throughout Europe.
These defenses of national sovereignty can appear mean-spirited, but they may be smart politics. Across the continent, one encounters a rising tide of populist nationalism—some of it of a very ugly, extremist variety. Mainstream politicians like Cameron—himself feeling the heat on the right from the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—seek to coopt some supporters of smaller nationalist parties. In this environment, Merkel and Hollande’s support for the Juncker plan looks particularly courageous. Within Germany, attacks on migrants have more than doubled in 2015 compared to last year. In France, meanwhile, National Front Leader Marine Le Pen is making hay accusing Merkel (and by implication Hollande) of threatening French domestic employment by swamping the continent in cheap migrant labor.
Le Pen’s framing of the issue is savvy. While UNHCR estimates that the majority of asylum seekers washing up on Europe’s shores are genuine refugees from conflict, some are indeed economic migrants looking for a better life. Given the continent’s continued economic malaise, Le Pen and other nationalists are banking on a nativist reaction against foreign job-seekers. Other European leaders, led by Orban, are depicting the migrant crisis as a fundamental question of Europe’s identity as a Christian (rather than Muslim) region. Both also draw on popular sentiments of alienation from Brussels and frustration with the shortcomings of the European project. Lost in all this is the fact that Europe is a graying continent that desperately needs migrants for jobs.
This coming Monday, EU officials will gather to debate Juncker’s proposal in Brussels, where European solidarity will be put to the test by divergent national attitudes about how much national sovereignty to sacrifice—and how much to defend. Historically, European elites have often used crises as opportunities to propel further gains in European integration—in the manner that the French would term “fuite en avant” (or “escape forward”). Whether this is possible today, as European leaders court populist support—while the EU technocrats seem distant from the people of Europe—remains to be seen.