Busy with short-term problems… Europeans have taken their eyes off more profound, long-term challenges. How the European Union copes with its immediate problems in the next couple of years will determine how the continent will fare in decades to come.
— Global Agenda Council on Europe
Of all these challenges, both short- and long-term, the ongoing refugee crisis looms largest.
The Global Risks Report 2016 looks at the most pressing global risks facing the world, and how they could evolve and interact in the next decade. Top of the list of risks of highest concern for the next 18 months in this year’s report, by a considerable margin, was ‘Large-scale involuntary migration’.
The aforementioned GAC report also includes a graphic which shows just how quickly the refugee crisis has been hurled to the front of the European agenda.
This should come as a surprise to no-one.
More than a million refugees crossed into Europe last year, sparking a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the mass influx.
War-torn Syria continues to be the biggest driver of migration, but refugees are also fleeing unrest in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq, amongst others.
Faced with arguably its biggest crisis since World War II, European nations have struggled to reach an agreement on how best to resettle the new arrivals. The fear – from some quarters – that admitting refugees will open the door to more terrorism in Europe has added another level of complexity.
This is an issue that is high on the agenda at Davos. David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee and a panel member in this session, has written on this issue for our site, Agenda. Calling it “a crisis full of false choices,” he writes:
"By the end of this year's Annual Meeting in Davos, we can expect more than 10,000 refugees to have arrived on the shores of Europe. And this is the so-called “quiet season”. By spring, the numbers will increase, fleeing the horrors of Syria and elsewhere. If 2015 was the biggest test yet of Europe’s capacity and willingness to manage the crisis, 2016 is only going get tougher.
This is a crisis full of false choices, obscuring the real choice. False choices between sanctuary for refugees and safety for Europeans; between aid directed towards the Middle East and aid directed to the European continent; between commitments to equal rights at home and international law abroad; between head and heart.
The false choice is to say that to protect ourselves we have to stop taking refugees in need – in other words abandon our values. The real choice is between disorganized and illegal entry into Europe, around and over fences and walls that are built, and organized management of refugee flows into Europe and within Europe. This is not a matter of compassion or competence; Europe needs both.”
How can Europe protect itself without abandoning its values?
Europe has reached a critical point, says moderator Lyse Doucet. There is no escaping this fact. With so much pressure on so many fronts, are they pulling Europe apart, rather than bringing it together?
Is Europe failing?
“It cannot,” says Federica Mogherini. Without the European Union and its unity we will not be able to face up to challenges like the refugee crisis, terrorism and economic stagnation.
The refugee crisis took European nations by surprise, says Witold Waszczykowski. But by the end of the year, we had begun to be organised.
But with 2000 refugees still arriving every day, some people would argue that this is not organisation from European nations, but a failure to prepare itself.
But at least they are safe, Waszczykowski says. We may not be able to provide a good job and a house immediately, but at least they are safe.
However, refugees arriving by sea are still dying, says Doucet.
“It’s a mess,” says David Miliband. The choice we face is between chaotic arrivals, or an organised system. We need more human action in the region where these people are originating from, and an organised attempt to implement the policies the EU proposed in 2015.
European nations are trying to work out how to cope with the refugee influx together, argues Emmanuel Macron. But some countries do not want to be involved. We have a matter of weeks to deliver on a concrete European solution, otherwise there will be nation-by-nation solutions. The right way to deal with this is as a group, otherwise we risk the beginning of the end of the European Union.
“When the whole cannot act, the nations will act,” says Josef Joffe. Since its inception, the EU has faced many obstacles, and it’s always overcome them. The problem, however, is that in the past these problems have emerged one at a time. Today, they are all arriving at once.
The challenge of resettling refugees
Results so far have not been good, says Miliband. Europe is playing catch-up. It’s right that people be screened, and it’s even right for the integrity of the system that those who don’t meet the criteria to qualify as refugees are not allowed to stay.
On the issue of burden sharing, Waszczykowski argues that Poland is also dealing with a refugee crisis from the east; the country is hosting one million refugees who have fled the fighting in Ukraine.
Closing borders is not a solution, says Mogherini. Doing this merely shifts the problem to neighbouring countries.
Refugees: an asset or a burden?
If a country has the capacity to integrate refugees and offer them opportunities, then they can be a huge asset to any nation, says Macron. But it’s easier to integrate them in countries with lower unemployment. But we are not talking about migrants, but refugees, and the resilience they have shown to get here in the first place should not be forgotten.
For Germany, a country with a significant demographic problem, the arrival of refugees could be a blessing. Joffe agrees. But there is a clash between the welfare state and open borders; it is hard for the welfare state to absorb too many arrivals because of the high cost of them entering the market. A Swedish statistic says it takes young refugees about seven years to find a permanent job, he adds.
Is Europe importing extremism?
The biggest threat to Europe, argues Miliband, comes from those born in Europe. This is a challenge of integration. The key to this is employment and a path to citizenship.
Refugees are fleeing terror, not aspiring to it. It’s wrong to make this a terror debate, when it should be about refugees.
We need more Schengen, not less, says Macron. We need a common approach to dealing with refugees and helping them to recover.
The economic cost of getting rid of Schengen would be considerable, argues Mogherini. Europe is still emerging from a deep financial crisis, and if we were to add to that cost by further fragmenting the EU, then we risk much bigger problems.
How many is too many?
We need time, says Joffe. So we must slow the rate of people arriving so that we have time to integrate those who are already here. We will not stop the flow, but we need to manage it better.
Putting up walls won’t work, says Miliband. If any of us were living in Syria right now, or Lebanon where refugees are paid $13 a month, then we would also be trying to reach Europe.
Refugees are not leaving for economic reasons, he adds. The only time people from Syria ever smile is when you ask them if they will ever go home. “Inshallah,” they say.
Only by trying to integrate all one million of them in one place would we have a problem. The burden will be shared.
Migrants, or refugees?
Fifty-nine percent of those arriving in Europe are from Syria, says Miliband, another 22% are from Afghanistan, so it’s safe to say they have a well-grounded fear of persecution or violence.
But compassion alone won’t help them, we need proper solutions.
It’s also important to acknowledge the role of nations in the Middle East, who have taken in millions more refugees than countries in Europe, says Mogherini. So it’s not just a European problem.