Migration Lays Bare the Rifts in a United Europe

The vision of a united Europe is slipping out of reach.

As economies tank, jobs vanish, and protesters rage, the dream of a united continent is becoming dim. A main factor in destroying this dream is the European Union’s inability to organize its immigration and asylum policies, a conflicting issue for all members.

The recent waves of refugees fleeing the political unrest in North Africa are only the latest chapter in the saga of migration mismanagement in Europe. Last week, a makeshift boat laden with North African refugees crashed on the rocky shores of Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean. In the middle of the night, 400 men, women, and children spilled into the water and were rescued by officers of the Italian coast guard. Everyone on board was recovered and no lives were lost ... this time.

For years, border countries have struggled under the weight of steady flows of economic migrants and asylum-seekers. Accounting for 90 percent of those seeking access to Europe, Greece alone reported 45,000 illegal border crossings in just the first half of 2010. This year, Italy’s Lampedusa has already received 25,000 migrants.

Thus far, the E.U. hasn’t developed any broader management policies, beyond heightening border security and dispatching emergency response teams. As a result, the E.U. largely abandoned its border countries to deal with the unrelenting masses of clandestine migrants themselves. Member countries signed the Schengen Agreement of 1985, eliminating border controls within the E.U. and forfeiting their capacity to unilaterally dictate migration and asylum policies. Today, however, any effective alternative requires the full cooperation of all the member countries; symbolic unity is simply not enough. It’s time to consider other policy options.

An earlier PolicyMic article by my colleague Pauline Moullot, criticizing the Italian-French disagreement over North African refugees, suggested that the solution lies in Europe's finding the will to demonstrate a stronger moral compass. The E.U.’s sluggishness to assume responsibility is less a matter of its lack of humanity, and more a matter of its wariness toward further Europeanization.

Europe faces failing economies in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal; high rates of unemployment; and crippling austerity measures across its confederacy. Furthermore, the outrage among nationalist groups and widespread fears of losing national identities are also major political issues. The member countries are justifiably hesitant to relinquish further control over national matters.

Nevertheless, cooperation to address migration and asylum issues is necessary to achieve a truly united Europe. It will alleviate the pressure felt by border countries to manage migration flows, standardize and improve methods of processing individuals, and lessen the hardships of migrants. Most importantly, a cohesive and successful policy toward migration and asylum will demonstrate real hope for Europe’s unification.

Photo Credit: tristam sparks