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Migrants walk near the Hungarian village of Asotthalom of the Hungarian-Serbian border.AFP / Getty Images

The European Union is cracking, again. This time, it could shatter under the weight of a migrants' crisis that has virtually every one of its member states madly pulling and pushing in all directions, undermining the founding concept of shared goals, vision, welfare – and shared pain.

Every few years, the 28-country EU and the 19 countries within it that use the euro (the euro zone) face severe tests, typically the result of faulty crisis-fighting mechanisms or selfish national behaviour. These crises are inevitable, for the EU and the euro zone are economic and currency unions imposed upon sovereign countries, each of them fully capable of acting in its own interests when the going gets tough.

In 2012, when Europe was in deep recession and Greece in outright depression, the latter seemed on the verge of bolting from the euro zone and making a lie of the notion that the currency was "irreversible." The European Central Bank (ECB), led by the eminently practical and flexible Mario Draghi, came to the rescue with a barrage of crisis-fighting mechanisms. They more or less worked – outright disaster was avoided – even if they exposed the fragility of the common currency.

Three years later, when Greece decided once again to threaten the integrity of the euro zone, the ECB, backed by the financial might of Germany, prevented Greece from leaving. Thanks in good part to the bank, back-to-back existential crises were overcome, if only barely (Greece is an economic wreck and could still hit the road).

The current migrants' crisis is much bigger than the one unleashed by the Greeks and there is no all-powerful migration version of Mr. Draghi to save the day. Potentially, millions of refugees and economic migrants from conflict areas in the Middle East and Africa are lining up to get in – some nine million Syrians have been displaced as the civil war shreds their country; many of them want to come to Europe.

The numbers are already staggering – Europe is seeing the largest influx and internal movement of people since the end of the Second World War. About 350,000 people have entered this year, with Italy, Greece and, now, Hungary, bearing the brunt of the mass arrivals. In August alone, 50,000 migrants reached Hungary.

Almost 3,000 people have died so far this year in the Mediterranean. In April, a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa claimed 800 lives. On Aug. 28, the bodies of 71 migrants, many of them thought to be Syrian, were found in an abandoned truck in Austria.

This week, the world was shocked by images of a three-year-old Syrian boy, whose lifeless body had washed up on a Turkish beach. He drowned when his family tried to reach the Greek island of Kos. But child deaths have been sadly routine among those making the treacherous voyage to southern Europe from Libya and Turkey. In April, several fishermen in Tunisia, near the badlands along the Libyan border, told The Globe and Mail that their nets sometimes snared the bodies of drowned African migrants, a few of them children.

The EU's reaction to the migrant crisis has, all too predictably, been chaotic, contradictory, near-hysterical and sometimes mean-spirited, heightening the crisis and highlighting an ugly truth –– that the union has no mechanism to fix a disaster that could be managed to minimize the damage and stem outright bigotry. At the EU refugee relocation crisis meeting in July, some countries, such as Austria, refused to take any migrants; others agreed only to take a token number. Finland, one of the wealthiest and least densely populated EU countries, said it would take a mere 800. A few countries, notably Germany, agreed to take way more than their fair share.

Already, the Schengen open-travel agreement is in trouble: no less than German chancellor Angela Merkel, one of its champions, says so. The agreement, named after the village in Luxembourg where it was conceived, is one of the EU's key building blocks. It came into effect in 1995 and allows passport-free travel in 26 member countries – Britain is the notable exception – as well as a few non-members, including Norway. When it was launched and expanded over the years, Schengen became the very symbol of the success of the European integration project.

Today, as the crisis unfolds, there are cries everywhere to have it modified, even scrapped. Italy and France have called for a review of Schengen, though this is partly based on their motivation to stop suspected terrorists at the borders. Earlier this year, the Dutch prime minister threatened to push Greece out of Schengen unless it prevented undocumented migrants from obtaining free passage to the rest of the EU.

Germany is warning that its membership in Schengen is at risk unless the burden of accepting asylum seekers is shared. "If it's not possible to achieve a fair allocation of refugees within Europe, then some people will want to put Schengen on the agenda," Ms. Merkel said at an Aug. 31 press conference.

Hungary appeared to give the middle finger to Schengen when it erected a 174-kilometre razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia in an effort to stem the flow of migrants and refugees to the EU. (On Friday, it also closed its main highway crossing to Serbia.) To some pro-Europeans, the images of the fence were almost as shocking of those of drowned migrants. It appeared as if a new Berlin Wall or Iron Curtain were going up in a region where the very notion of a wall violates the concept of an open and free Europe.

More walls could go up as migrant paranoia spreads, potentially overcoming Ms. Merkel's best efforts to put an asylum and relocation strategy in place. If that paranoia results in the death of Schengen – which is to say, the death of free mobility – the whole European project could unravel. Coming on top of the financial crisis, the end of Schengen might be too much for the EU to bear.

There is no doubt the migrant crisis represents a pivotal moment for the EU, pivotal because the EU is in trouble on so many levels. There are only so many more blows it can take before faith in the European project evaporates.

The EU is unique in the world because it was the one economic region that fused prosperity with social justice, a formula that went from success to success for decades. The prosperity run came to crashing end after the 2008 financial crisis. The EU has spent the last seven years fighting recessions, fixing busted banks, coping (or not coping) with double-digit unemployment, watching its factories close en masse, witnessing the rise of anti-EU and anti-euro parties (such as Marine Le Pen's Front National in France and Italy's Five Star Movement), and dealing with the endless Greek crisis and the loss of hope among tens of millions of jobless young people. With rising prosperity replaced by stagnation, or economic hell, in parts of the EU, the notion that the EU can be a reliable wealth-creation machine has vanished.

Now, the social justice side of the equation is coming under pressure. Governments in many countries, especially along the Mediterranean frontier, are tapped out financially and can't afford to keep schools and hospitals intact, let alone cope with an influx of asylum seekers.

The crisis has brought out the worst in many allegedly fair-minded and compassionate politicians, among them British Prime Minister David Cameron, who talked of "swarms" of migrants trying to "break into Britain," as though migrants were barbarians at the gate. More than a few EU countries are adopting an every-man-for-himself strategy as the migrants keep coming. Slovakia has said it will take only non-Muslim migrants.

One irony is that countries like Britain and France have welcomed refugees for centuries. Another is that Europe, with its aging population, stagnant growth and falling birth rates, needs immigrants – lots of them. What is happening instead is a call for border controls and, in Hungary's case, an actual wall.

The EU's ideals and morals are falling away, to the point the union is on the verge of making a mockery of its own existence.

Eric Reguly is The Globe and Mail's European bureau chief.

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