In September 2014, the European Union’s press office released a striking, if difficult to verify, statistic. One million babies, it estimated, had been born as a result of the Erasmus Programme, which allows students within the EU to study in one another’s countries. The headlines it provoked fit neatly with the EU’s founding myth, which runs something like this: After the Second World War, European states came together in a spirit of cooperation, determined never again to repeat the horrors wrought by nationalism on their continent. As trade agreements have brought down borders between states, and European citizens have been able to travel more freely than ever before, the EU has become a beacon of democracy and human rights to the rest of the world.
Yet the triumphalism of this story sits uneasily with the scenes of misery and death that have become commonplace at Europe’s borders. Right now, there is widespread public shock at the photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned with family members as they took an unsafe smuggler boat from the Turkish coast in an attempt to reach Greece. It feels like a tipping point. But so, too, did the disastrous shipwreck off the coast of Libya in April, where more than 800 people died. Then, European leaders declared themselves “chagrined” by the failure to protect human life in the Mediterranean and promised a swift response. Instead, little has been done. Tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East and Africa are still taking perilous routes across the EU’s external borders, only to find that their journeys don’t end when they reach Europe. A chaotic asylum system forces many refugees into destitution as they try to find a country that will give them the chance to rebuild their lives.
The situation almost defies comprehension. While the world is experiencing an acute refugee crisis—more people are displaced by conflict now than at any time since the Second World War, according to the UNHCR—only a small proportion of those refugees are journeying to Europe. The numbers should be sustainable: Last year, 626,065 people claimed asylum in the EU, which has a total population of more than 500 million. There won’t be any easy “solution” to the refugee crisis—civil war in Syria, the collapse of the Libyan state, and population movements driven by global inequality and climate change are all problems that will take many years to resolve—but the measures that would allow Europe to treat migrants in a humane and dignified manner are, on the face of it, simple enough. “Instead of resisting [migration], we should organize it,” argued the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, in April. He proposed safe, legal routes to asylum for refugees and a visa scheme for migrants coming from outside the EU in search of work. Why, then, the paralysis—is Europe unable, or unwilling, to act?
Partly, it is a problem of structure. The EU, a 28-member bloc whose constituent states each have their own national legal and political systems, began as an economic union and has moved only fitfully toward political integration. The 2007 Lisbon Treaty, for instance, gave an enhanced role to the post of high representative for foreign affairs, currently held by Federica Mogherini, but many important decisions are still made by negotiation between the representatives of national governments. The emergency summits held since April—to discuss search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, initiatives to combat people smugglers, and resettlement quotas for refugees who have arrived in Southern Europe—have been conducted by the council of EU foreign ministers, each of whom must answer to a national parliament. National governments are perfectly capable of sluggish responses to humanitarian crises—Italy after the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009, or the United States after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, spring to mind—but the EU has an added layer of bureaucracy that hinders its ability to act in a swift and unified manner.