The bicycle theory is popular in Brussels. It holds that European integration either moves forward or crashes, and it is proving to be an alarmingly precise description of the current health of the EU project.
In 2015, a continent that was emerging from its worst post-war economic crisis and already divided around the notion of austerity was hit by an unexpected wave of immigration from Northern Africa and the Middle East. This wave, despite being considerably limited compared to Turkey’s or Lebanon’s situations, had few precedents in the region’s recent history.
Looking at sheer numbers is not enough to understand the political reaction to this phenomenon. Migration is a profoundly emotional topic that, in the last few years, has amplified fears for the future of employment and resentment over the decreased standard of living in most countries. Such anxiety has represented a fertile ground for nationalist and xenophobic discourses which are now threatening to halt a decades-long integration process.
Given these premises, at the European Council Summit held in Brussels on 28th-29th June, the issue of immigration dominated talks, shadowing other pivotal issues, including Brexit negotiations, defence, and eurozone reform. Expectations for this gathering were high, yet outcomes quite low on substance. The key conflict was, and remains, over Dublin III, the EU Regulation on migration currently in force, which allocates the entire responsibility of processing the asylum applications and of protecting asylum seekers to the country of the migrant’s first arrival. On one side, Italy leads Southern states in their demand for a more solidarity-driven approach and closer cooperation involving all countries in the challenge. Northern leaders, on their side, lament a poor application of the regulation which allows migrants to enter their territory through the so-called “secondary movements”, breaching the Dublin rules and creating unease among the domestic electorate. Limiting this is now a key priority for Merkel’s government, under pressure by the Bavarian CSU, her coalition partners in Bavaria, and also for Eastern countries who are traditionally opposed to any form of relocation and are led by Hungary.
A police officer patrols the wall erected by Hungary at the Hungarian-Serbian border
Conclusions, reached after hours of negotiations to overcome Italy's vetoes on the draft, were immediately hailed as a significant step forward but, in fact, fell short of bringing meaningful progress, many observers admit. The agreed guidelines remained vague enough for leaders to sell them on their domestic political marketplaces as a national victory. Italy obtained a declaration that migration is a challenge “for Europe as a whole”, not just for countries of arrival. However, the conclusion only opened up the possibility for non-frontier states - on a voluntary basis - to set up centres to process asylum applications. On the grounds that secondary movements threaten the integrity of the Schengen area, the principal responsibility for the first country of arrival was reaffirmed and all discussions on a reform of the Dublin regulation were postponed, to the relief of the Eastern bloc. All participants seemed to agree on the necessity to strengthen external border controls by allocating more funds to Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) and expanding its mandate. The decision to raise the EU Trust Fund for Africa by a symbolic sum of € 500M shows, instead, a complete lack of long-term vision on the issue. Finally, for the first time, leaders called upon the Commission and the Council of Ministers to explore the option of regional “disembarkation platforms”, reception centres in third countries designed to process asylum applications outside the Union. Such a proposal, however, may not only prove morally opaque - it outsources the problem in weak conflict-ridden non-EU countries lacking the means to face these flows - but also highly unfeasible, due to the immediate negative reaction by North African countries initially imagined as potential partners, such as Libya and Tunisia.
It’s clear that the agreed points fall largely short of the bold but necessary steps to establish a long-term, effective migration plan, ensuring dignity and opportunities for migrants.
Solving such momentous issues requires strong cooperation and trust among EU member states. However, the current EU set-up requires unanimity in the Council for the most central issues, and the widespread post-crisis frustration in the electorate has prevented the development of a new reform momentum in Europe. The consequent failure to react to global challenges and to deliver to the public have further reduced voters’ willingness to accept a transfer of sovereignty to Brussels, which manifested itself in the electoral rise of nationalist and openly anti-EU movements, as argued by WES 2018 speaker M.Monti with regards to Italy. As these parties gained visibility and credibility, they prevented any attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement to tackle present issues on an EU-level, bringing the integration process almost to a halt.
The EU, as a bicycle, needs to move forward to sustain itself. Once it slows down, it runs the serious risk of crashing to the ground. Now it needs to change pace, either as a whole or within a multi-speed framework.
N.B. This article reflects the author’s opinions only.