Europe Again Fails to Solve Its Refugee Crisis

Europe fails them again.

Photographer: David Ramos/Getty Images

European Union leaders keep trying and mostly failing to address the continent's refugee crisis. On Wednesday, after their third inconclusive meeting about it in 2015, this is what European Council President Donald Tusk had to say: "Tonight we have a common understanding that we cannot continue like we did before."

Nonetheless, they're apparently going to give it a try.

Europe's Refugee Crisis

On Tuesday, European interior ministers voted through a plan calling for 120,000 refugees to be resettled among the member countries. That's a tiny fraction of the asylum seekers who've already turned up, to say nothing of those expected to arrive in the coming months. A conservative estimate is 1 million refugees this year, and the flow might continue at the same rate for the foreseeable future.

This meager commitment seems unlikely to go into full effect anyway. It was forced through over the strenuous objections of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. Legal challenges may follow, and some of the governments may simply refuse to comply. The "spirit of solidarity and responsibility" referred to in the council statement was nowhere in evidence.

To be sure, the recent surge of people from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere poses an enormous challenge -- but even allowing for the difficulty, Europe's disarray is hard to forgive. The EU desperately needs to reach agreement on a much larger resettlement plan, joint measures to improve external border security, steps to help refugees before they embark for Europe, and diplomacy to contain the violence in Syria. Even maximum effort on those points might fail to deliver a solution. But without an agreement, expect more fences, barbed wire and border checks -- and more scenes of desperation and misery.

While Europe has been looking inward and arguing over resettlement quotas and the fate of its Schengen borderless travel zone, it has neglected the factors driving refugees in its direction. And processing genuine refugees in Europe is made all the harder by the fact that the EU is bad at sending home rejected asylum seekers from safe countries such as Serbia. A steady flow of migrants has clogged the asylum system -- and, because so many of them are allowed to stay, others have reason to follow.

As Europe grapples with all this, the most alarming thing is the fault line that has emerged on refugees between the rich Western nations and central Europe -- most of the former too grudging in their economic assistance and all of the latter too xenophobic in their approach to migration. The issue already threatens one of Europe's most visible and popular achievements -- borderless travel. Border checks have returned to parts of Europe, and despite rules that limit their reintroduction, there is no sign they will disappear anytime soon.

In a way, Europe's anxieties over Schengen are beside the point: A Europe without passport checks at internal borders is a fine thing, but it won't count for much (and in fact is unlikely to last) if this dangerous cultural and political divide can't be closed.

A renewed sense of common purpose in confronting the refugee challenge is indispensable. There's no sign of it yet. Europe's response to the economic crisis has already undermined popular support for the union and frayed its bonds of solidarity to a dangerous point. If Europe's leaders don't rise to the occasion soon, the refugee crisis may finish the job.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.