EU flags outside of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France
Overwhelmed by the amount of refugees arriving and seeking asylum in Sweden, the country has introduced controls at its border with Denmark and contributed to the wave of isolationism spreading throughout the European Union.
The EU bloc’s attempts to fairly resettle and redistribute millions of refugees have failed, with a majority of member countries doing little, if anything, to help share the burden of Europe’s latest wave of asylum-seekers. In stark contrast with the EU’s fundamental principles of collaboration and solidarity, the bloc’s problems with national egoism and protectionism have become the norm of intra-European relations. With approximately 1700 people crossing the Mediterranean every day to reach Europe’s shores, belief in the European dream is being tested as never before.
Faced with its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, Europe will need to decide what happens to the union that is built upon principles of collectivity and collaboration when its member nations put their own citizenry first. When nationalism rears its head, will the union crumble?
On January 4, contrary to the Schengen agreement and the long history of passport-free travel within Scandinavia, border control checks proposed two months earlier by Sweden’s prime minister came into effect at the borders with Denmark and Norway. Prime Minister Stefan Löfen’s decision was reached following the Valetta Summit on Migration in November, during which he spoke to the importance of collaboration between EU countries in easing Sweden’s growing burden of approximately 10,000 people seeking asylum in the country every week. He ended the speech by emphasizing how important it is that these decisions are reached “out of free choice, not forced choice” by the specific countries, thereby pinpointing one of the biggest problems the union currently faces: unwillingness to act in solidarity.
The response from fellow EU countries to Prime Minister Löfen’s appeal has been disheartening, with Denmark, Germany, Austria, France, Malta all mirroring Sweden’s new border controls, while passport checks have been enforced by Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary since October.
The Schengen accord, a central pillar of the EU that promises invisible borders and free travel between most EU member countries, is hanging by a thread, while what constitutes one of the EU’s Four Freedoms – the free flow of people within its borders – has been reduced to little more than a symbolic one. Recent EU summits in Brussels, Malta and Vienna, held in an effort to map out strategies for redistribution of refugees, all sought to address a collective European crisis. But the implementation strategies have until this point failed as nations resist abiding by the resolutions.
Few countries are interested in responding to a shared European problem, creating a domino effect of increasingly harsh border controls throughout the Eurozone. As long as the free-movement principle is upheld, refugees will be able to resettle in any country within the Schengen zone. Undermining the agreement, therefore, is a reaction in favour of maintaining autonomous control over each country’s intake of refugees.
The attempts to fairly redistribute refugees as a coalition will remain ineffective as long as member countries are unwilling to abide by the results. The inequality of national responsibility vis-a-vis the refugee crisis, while geographically understandable, is staggering, and the unwillingness of less-affected countries to share the burden even more so. Indeed, the lack of cooperation exhibited threatens to undermine the very values upon which the EU is built.
The rise and growth of far-right political parties in Denmark, Norway, Austria, Greece, France and many other EU nations has revealed stark internal disagreement on how to address the situation. But responses to such division, while varied, rarely go as far as introducing border restrictions. The individualism and protectionism with which EU members have responded has emphasized the fragility of the union and the frequent discord between the priorities of a nation and those of the bloc itself.
The EU’s awareness of its own fragility is apparent in the looming possibility of a Brexit and the failure to follow up on accusations of human rights violations by member nations, despite repeatedly barring Turkey from the union due to its own questionable practices.
The EU’s failure to uphold these values begs the question of whether they are becoming purely symbolic — a veil for an agenda that promotes free and easy trade conditions between countries that benefits individual members, but does not encompass collective support in a crisis like the one the EU is currently facing.
Evidently, the parts of the agreement that include solidarity in dark times — values intrinsic to the notion of the European Dream — have fallen short. The union’s aspirations of transcending ethnicities and national borders and redefining the notion of citizenship are failing. As long as nationalism continues to manifest itself as the prevailing ideology among the bloc’s member nations, the European Union will continue to grow weaker.
Leah Barrett Werner is a senior at McGill University, majoring in English Literature with a minor in Anthropology.