Background: between the years 2014 and 2019, an unprecedented number of people fleeing chronic instability, violent conflict, and economic insecurity flooded in to the European Union. Beyond severely stressing the institutions of littoral southern European states on the front lines of the crisis, the five years between the beginning and end of the crisis also exposed & exacerbated massive structural issues with the structure of the European Union, highlighting its inability to match high-minded rhetoric with an absence of options for compelling national governments to act.
While the crisis proper has come to an end, the long-term issues for European policymakers created by instability on its periphery and in its halls of government have not yet come close to being resolved. This policy brief serves both as a broad outline of the crisis itself, and an examination of the ongoing attempts to address these issues before the next crisis.
Facts & Figures
- As of 1/1/19, out of a total EU population of 446.8 million, there were 34.2 million people in the EU who had been born outside of it
- 20.9 million of those people were non-citizen residents
- The vast majority of migrants during the crisis were fleeing instability in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq; instability in Libya also led to a conducive environment for people-smugglers and slavers preying on migrants
- Southern European countries-specifically Greece & Italy, both still recovering from the Great Recession-bore the biggest brunt of migrants by far, with most fleeing north & northwest in cheap boats or rubber dinghies
- In 2019, over 200,000 people under the age of 18 applied for protection in the EU. Of those 200,000, 14,000 were applicants under the age of 18 who arrived in Europe without a parent or guardian
- There were a total of 16,500 recorded migrant deaths during Mediterranean crossings between 2014 and 2019
- The European Union was (and is) severely divided on the question of sharing the burden of these migratory waves. While some Western countries like Germany took an outsized share of migrant quotas, others refused to take any as they played to domestic opinion
- In particular, the Visegrád Group (or V4) made up of Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia staked a virulently anti-migrant, anti-quota position shortly after the crisis began
- The EU encountered severe difficulty in trying to compel these countries-and other backsliders-to honor any attempts at instituting a quota for taking in migrants
- Matters were complicated further by the Dublin Regulation, which was instituted in 2013 and which mandates that asylum applications must be lodged in the first country an applicant reaches
- In practice, this led to the overwhelming of the (already shaky) states of Italy & Greece, while providing cover for non-Mediterranean EU members to do their best to ignore the crisis
- The crisis unfolded against the backdrop of a pan-European resurgence in far-right sentiment & party support. While this sentiment found its loudest expression in the V4 states, various Western European governments had to backpedal on early welcoming statements as public opinion soured
- These concerns have economic dimensions, but are often primarily addressed towards the idea that Europe is being ‘invaded’ or otherwise culturally washed away, fertile ground for the aforementioned far-right parties and populist leaders across the continent
EU Approaches to the Crisis
Beyond working to support and house the millions arriving in the bloc, the European Union pursued three broad strokes strategies aimed at mitigating the arrival numbers.
- Deal-making with regional ‘gatekeepers’ like Turkey, trading economic and political benefits for an agreement to forestall and house migrants
- Pushing for a more integrated system of quotas and asylum applications
- Attempting to support chronically weak governments like those in Iraq & Libya, ideally removing the impetus to migrate in the first place
The results of these approaches have varied. On the first count, while the deal with Turkey was largely successful in stalling migrants, it did raise serious ethical and political questions for EU mandarins. European leaders had to contend on the one hand with domestic opposition to shunting migrants off on countries seen as less equipped to help them, while on the other hand dealing with segments of domestic opinion opposed to any dealmaking or integration with Turkey at all.
The second approach is-in the author’s humble opinion-where the EU’s efforts have fallen the flattest, largely because there are few good mechanisms to compel a national government to go along with the crowd. Given the Union’s historic emphasis on collaboration and consensus, there are few ways to sanction leaders for domestic repression, let alone for refusing to shoulder a part of the burden (for concurrent examples of both of those behaviors see Hungary under the Fidesz party, or Poland under the Law and Justice party).
On the third count it is still too early to say whether European Union efforts will bear any fruit. The task of helping to develop and stabilize countries like Syria or Iraq is one that was daunting even before the advent of the migrant crisis. As we have seen, a country on the brink of civil war may not even have a universally recognized government with which to deal.
Ultimately, the European migration crisis offers both large warning flags and serious lessons for policymakers. The warning flags: in an era of increased access to transportation and information, it is easier than ever for millions of people who (justifiably) feel they have nothing to lose to strike out for a new home. No longer can a morass of violence and instability on the periphery of one’s country be safely ignored, even across large bodies of water. The lessons? Structural flaws become ever more pressing to address as the collective weight our institutions bear increases with every year. As the EU has repeatedly learned to its chagrin, these flaws have a way of setting off sparks when truly stressed.
European Commission: Statistics on migration to Europe