Don’t blame Europe for the refugee crisis

Whether one looks at numbers or images, the tragedy at, and inside, Europe’s borders could hardly be deeper. From the father selling pens to support his family to the diabetic girl who died because the human-trafficker threw her insulin into the sea, from the 71 refugees found dead in a truck in Austria to the devastating image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurd, washed ashore in seeming slumber but in fact breathless and motionless forever, Europe has been struck by tragedy of the highest kind.

Numbers provide an equally grim record. As of this week, out of the 3,776 migrant fatalities recorded this year worldwide, 2,748 died trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. Europe’s borders are by far the world’s deadliest.

Many observers put the blame for all this misery on the European Union. Politicians on the right like to speak of the “pull effect” of European policies on migrants, even in the face of such a dramatic death toll. After Aylan’s death, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Europe and the West are to blame for turning the Mediterranean “into a cemetery for refugees.” Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has claimed that Europe is getting what it deserves after having destabilized the Middle East. U.S. commentators have reproached Europe for its divisions and inability to act.

A Syrian refu­gee gets a medical check upon her arrival in Germany. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)
A Syrian refu­gee gets a medical check upon her arrival in Germany. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

I belong to the camp of those who have — for years now — argued that the European Union can and must do more to address the flaws in its refugee and migration policy. The need for a more strategic and united common foreign and security policy must be part of the answer. The E.U. must reinforce, rather than weaken, its development-aid policy and its funding, so as to ensure that we are better equipped to solve the problems in the countries where they emerge. Wednesday’s bold speech by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, to the European Parliament shows how long, and yet urgent, our to-do list is.

But I urge everyone to pause for a second before lashing out at Europe. Digging deeper into the criticisms, one can immediately see how simplistic, politically motivated or just ungenerous they are.

First, Europe is a misnomer when it comes to the refugee crisis. In the United States, when someone tried to determine who is responsible for a problem, he would try to dissect who stands for what. Is it the president or Congress that is blocking a key piece of legislation? Are the Democrats or the Republicans to blame? Who is responsible for the lack of bipartisanship? The same exercise should apply to the European Union. In the migration and refugee crisis, responsibility can be attributed firmly. The European supranational institutions have shown their readiness to act. The European Parliament has supported the European Commission — the E.U.’s executive — in its courageous push for a binding system to help the countries most exposed to the refugee crisis.

On the other hand, E.U. member states often preach solidarity when it suits them and resist it when it does not. Solidarity must be a two-way street. E.U. member states cannot accept solidarity in the form of funds from Brussels or shared sanctions against Russia, but then refuse solidarity when it comes to sharing the burden of the refugee crisis. Solidarity must apply across the board when one or more member states is facing an unprecedented crisis alone. This is the case with today’s refugee crisis. It is not the European Union — or Brussels — that is broken. It is the intergovernmental decision-making process jealously guarded by national capitals that has once again proven its ineffectiveness.

Second, the apparent readiness to blame Europe for the refugees’ deaths is cynical and unwarranted. The European Union must not shy from its humanitarian duties at home and abroad. But is it the European Union that kills civilians in Syria? Is it the European Union that forces Eritreans to flee from a bloody and authoritarian dictatorship? It took the European Union too much time to help Italy with its search and rescue mission. We are not giving Syria’s neighbors sufficient help. But to claim that Europe has blood on its hands is simply wrong.

Third, one can be harsh with regard to European leaders, but one should think twice before criticizing European citizens. The images of Syrian migrants being welcomed at train stations in Germany and Austria have created much sympathy. Europeans across the union are by and large offering unprecedented support to the refugees. Civil society is showing a vibrancy that often goes unreported but is strong, moving and comforting. It is rather telling how Pope Francis is urging priests and people to be on the front lines to help those in need, and at the same time some leaders position themselves as the paladins of a Christian Europe that intends to keep Islamic refugees out. Unfortunately, while citizens across Europe are showing backbone, some of their governments, which should be the standard-bearers, are not.

Today we are witnessing a debate between two Europes: a Europe willing to move and change the status quo, ready to confront an epochal challenge in the right way; and a Europe of walls and ostriches, ready to dump its problems on its neighbors in the hope that the crisis will solve itself. Political will has been hard to garner, but thanks to the pressure coming from the bottom and from supranational institutions, action and solidarity may still trump cynicism. As Juncker said, the blame game will not help us find solutions. Courage and solidarity will.

Martin Schulz is president of the European Parliament.

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