Refugee Quota: the end of the EU or the beginning of collective humanitarianism

By Kelly M. Miller 

“Although I’m an optimist, these days, a lot of people have doubts about whether this kind of Europe still has a chance… We are currently witnessing in real time what a continent looks like which has no common ground, which has no Europe, no union.” These words from EU Commission president Martin Schulz, addressed to reporters just two weeks ago, touch on a sentiment quite palpable among both Europeans and onlookers abroad: the common European project is experiencing an internal and external crisis of confidence. And the cause is not agricultural subsidies or even the Euro, as some might have predicted, but migration.

Two weeks ago, EU leaders met to decide once and for all if just a few countries were to continue to host nearly all of the hundreds of thousands of refugees to have passed through its territory in recent months.

Up for redistribution were only 120,000 out of the nearly 1,000,000 migrants and refugees expected to now be in or on their way to Europe. Germany and France have already agreed to take in a majority of these human beings. Yet prior to the meeting, Hungary and the UK had been quite vocal in their skepticism to accepting refugees from Syria.

After hours of deliberation, no consensus could be reached. At last, a majority-rules vote among interior ministers was then held. With Poland’s last minute decision to stand behind Germany and Austria, the quota passed.

Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia stood firm in their opposition to the plan. Despite the fact that theirs is now officially a minority opinion, they continue to wag their finger at their Central European neighbors for going along with what they deem to be an impossible solution.

Germany has since called for sanctions against those countries that have refused to carry out their share of the quota, Slovakia and the Czech Republic included. Yet one could argue that attempting to strong-arm one’s European counterparts into going along with refugee processing and resettlement procedure will not make for a safe transition for refugees sent to those unwilling countries. After all, the logistics of accepting the designated quota are left entirely up to the receiving country – and a mood of hostility toward those being received cannot possibly be a desired outcome.

Two of the four opposing countries did introduce valid points in the course of the summit’s deliberations, however – relevant particularly in this new age of migration and the geopolitical complications it brings with it. According to Slovakia’s President, what is to prevent refugees and/or migrants from moving onto more affluent places like Germany and Sweden? Will they not simply pass through the EU’s poorer and less culturally heterogeneous regions like a fish swimming upstream? Or, as the Czech Prime Minister argued, will the quota system not set a dangerous precedent of immediate refugee resettlement across the EU, without first having proper infrastructure in place?

EU-internal borders were made more or less obsolete with the Schengen agreement of 1995; this prediction of upstream migration is more than just plausible.

Recent actions by Germany, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia to re-institute border controls just shortly before the summit have challenged the EU’s primary principle of freedom-of-movement and thus collective action, however. When even Germany, the leader of the European response to the refugee and migrant crisis, moves to more or less unilaterally secure and patrol its Austrian border, the argument for unified European action loses some of its practical and moral traction.

And so, confirming one of the biggest fears to have guided and thus threatened the EU project since its conception, a few EU countries are acting unilaterally and in their own interest. A system based on equitable contributions to EU institutions, on equal political participation, and on shared economic risk does not hold, if – out of principle – Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary flout majority rule… and if Germany and Austria independently decide to suspend the Schengen zone.

Flickr Creative Commons, attribution only: Thijs ter Haar.

Flickr Creative Commons, attribution only: Thijs ter Haar.

To some countries, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, acting in one’s own interest means opposing mandatory regulations, such as the refugee quota. Their opposition may stem specifically from the wording of the quota: unlike many other EU agreements, this one is binding. “Mandatory” anything is kryptonite to most EU member states. For former Eastern Bloc countries with a history of enforced Soviet demands and surveillance, it amounts to pounds of kryptonite in a locked room. Since those countries opposed to the quota would need to shelter a very small number – for example, a mere 850 human beings in Slovakia’s case – their rebellion can thus be interpreted as little more than resistance to a principle rather than to a real problem of resources.

The majority ruling does not affect all countries in the EU, however, as not all official EU members have signed onto the treaties affecting the common currency and the shared Schengen zone. It just so happens that those exempt from the ruling are some of Europe’s most affluent countries: Britain, Ireland, and Denmark. And therein lies another problem: claiming that collective action is needed to best accommodate the many refugees and migrants now entering Europe is difficult when one’s wealthy neighbors need not comply with such collective obligations.

Some countries reap benefits that the flow of people, goods, and services across borders has directly yielded, while being excused from confronting or managing the externalities such mobility incurs. This occasional exemption from some of the responsibilities and pit-falls associated with EU activities has been part of the deal since the very beginning. The European Union is an all-in or half-in organization for many of its members. Not all treaties must be signed to be a member of the club,

Of course, it is easier to announce the demise of the European project than to offer solutions to the problems this region now faces. Separated only by a few stretches of land and sea, some of the world’s most unstable regions now confront its wealthiest and most peaceful. Until such disparities are rectified, a common quota system serves only to contain a problem that will certainly expand and fester in the years to come. European unity or not.

Kelly M. Miller has an M.A. in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the Free University Berlin and a B.A. in International Studies, European Studies, and Germanics from the University of Washington, Seattle. She has worked with the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Seattle Refugee Youth Project, the International Rescue Committee, and Caritas Migration Services. She has conducted participatory action research on German immigrant integration policy and co-founded a media project on migration, diversity, and “the inclusive city” called Collidoscope Berlin

You can follow her on twitter at @kelmarie_miller and @collideberlin.

One comment

  1. […] migrants and refugees more prominently—as my colleagues here at The Migrationist have described here, here, here, here, and here. The recent spotlight on refugees arriving in Europe has sparked debate […]


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