A borderless Europe under siege

Imagine for a moment that, instead of the federally run Customs and Border Protection agency, Texas, Arizona and neighboring states were charged with patrolling the southern border, while Montana, New York and so on were responsible for guarding the northern one. Taxpayers in affected areas would probably complain that they were being unfairly burdened. Meanwhile, states far from the two borders, such as Kentucky or Missouri, would have little incentive to pitch in and help.

That arrangement may sound patently absurd, but it roughly describes how things have worked in the European Union since 1985, when the EU abolished internal border checks. The Schengen Agreement facilitated the free movement of people within Europe and led to a common visa policy. It also, for the most part, left the protection of the EU’s common border to its members.

Individual states, not the EU, police the common border and also process migrants who enter illegally or who seek asylum. When, say, Syrian refugees arrive on Greece’s shores, that’s Greece’s problem.

Migrants run on rail tracks in the Channel Tunnel site in Frethun in northern France on Aug. 5. The European Commission has offered to help France and Great Britain deal with the migrant crisis at the Channel Tunnel. (Philippe Huguen / AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants run on rail tracks in the Channel Tunnel site in Frethun in northern France on Aug. 5. The European Commission has offered to help France and Great Britain deal with the migrant crisis at the Channel Tunnel. (Philippe Huguen / AFP/Getty Images)

Much as when they created a common currency, EU leaders rushed toward what they saw as a worthwhile policy goal — in this case, freedom of movement — without creating the institutional underpinnings that would make the new system resilient to crises, such as the current inflow of refugees from the Middle East.

In 2014, more than 283,000 people crossed the EU’s Schengen border illegally — that’s more than 21/2 times the number in 2013. The total for 2015 will, in all likelihood, be even larger.

Several thousand asylum seekers are in the French port of Calais, hoping to cross into Britain. According to the French police, there were 1,700 “intrusions” into the Channel Tunnel freight terminal from Sunday to Monday night.

And more than 2,000 people have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on overcrowded vessels, according to the International Organization for Migration. Italy and Greece, certainly not the best-resourced or best-governed countries in the EU, are carrying out the bulk of the rescue operations, sometimes close to the coast of Libya.

Rescue operations are expensive, as is the reception of refugees who arrive in Europe. The EU does provide some funding for border protection and the processing of asylum requests, but not nearly enough. A study commissioned by the European Parliament in 2010 estimated that the amount disbursed from 2008 to 2013 by the European Refugee Fund covered only 14% of the asylum costs in the EU for just one year.

The EU has also tried to ease the burden on countries such as Greece or Italy by assigning quotas that steer asylum seekers to other EU member states for processing. That decision, however, has already led to pushback. In Slovakia, citizens of the town of Gabcikovo rejected in a local referendum the establishment of a temporary refugee facility for 500 asylum seekers currently housed in Austria.

While the EU halfheartedly attempts half-measures, the migrant crisis continues, leading to a reaction from member states that could, ultimately, imperil the very concept of freedom of movement.

Some EU countries, including France, Austria and the Czech Republic, are reinstating identity checks, either at their borders or inland. Hungary, in turn, is erecting an anti-immigration fence on its border with Serbia, a country that is negotiating its accession to the EU. In short, the ideal of a borderless Europe, long taken for granted, now seems very fragile.

There is only one solution: to recognize, just like in the United States, that the Schengen border and the EU’s asylum policies are the EU’s common problem, an EU-wide “public good,” to use economic parlance.

The EU already has an agency, Frontex, which coordinates the work of the economic bloc’s border protection agencies. Frontex, in fact, led the emergency response to the crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean, with some EU funding and modest voluntary contributions from countries such as Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and even from nonmembers including Norway and Iceland. It is unclear whether European leaders will find the courage to empower Frontex to supersede national border protection services and also to take on the task of processing asylum requests.

Given the situation in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan, where most of the incoming refugees are coming from, there is a strong argument for welcoming them to Europe with kindness and generosity. But there’s no good reason why common-border states should bear the brunt of that responsibility.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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