Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute. His latest book is Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America.
The refugee crisis has become a pretext for what some who are uncomfortable with the free circulation of people in the European Union have long wanted – the reinstatement of border controls.
Denmark has cancelled all trains bound for Germany; in turn, Germany will impose passport controls on people coming from Austria; and Hungary erected a fence on its border with Serbia (an official candidate to join the EU). Various governments are dragging their feet on European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's plan to distribute 160,000 refugees – mostly Syrian, but also from other Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries – throughout the union. This is preventing a rapid solution to the crisis and inflaming nationalist passions.
It's a tragedy. Many things have gone wrong with the European Union in recent years, mostly to do with the unsustainable welfare state and a monetary union that gave undisciplined governments and people the luxury of enjoying "German" interest rates while running into debt and spending like Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish, and other folks.
But one thing has constituted major progress – the free circulation of people, capital, goods and services (with some limitations). Schengen, the arrangement among 26 countries (including some outside the EU) that allows people to cross borders freely, has been a symbol of that progress.
The Schengen treaty allows for temporary restrictions in times of crisis. But the refugee situation has become a crisis in part because of the inability and unwillingness of many governments to act quickly, and the inadequacy of the norms in place. Not to mention that, although the main culprits in the plight of those who have abandoned their homes in Syria, Libya, and other countries are the dictators and fanatics who made life hell for them, military intervention by Western liberal democracies in Iraq created the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State, a major factor in what is happening.
The number of people who have arrived in Europe seeking protection represents only 0.11 per cent of the EU's population – nothing compared to what Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, who are harbouring millions, are facing. As noted, the European Commission wants to distribute 160,000 refugee claimants, about a third of those who have arrived, throughout Europe. So far, little help is coming from members of the union. It had been agreed back in May that 40,000 people would be allocated to various countries, but the process was not completed.
Two groups of countries present obstacles to a solution. The worst are the Central Europeans – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, and, to a lesser extent, Poland – once ruled by communism. The others are the three that have opt-out clauses in relation to the common rules on asylum – Denmark, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
One could add a third group, made up of countries such as France and Spain, that were very slow to agree to take any refugees at all, then said they would accept insufficient numbers.
This is why Germany grew exasperated and declared that it would take hundreds of thousands, urging its neighbours to step up to the plate – which led to Juncker´s plan. But now, in view of the fact that Germany is the only country that says it is ready to accept big numbers, all the refugees want to go there. This has caused a political problem for Chancellor Angela Merkel, resulting in the temporary (we don't know how temporary) reinstatement of border controls between Germany and Austria.
One more absurdity that added to the crisis is the rule according to which a person seeking refuge can only be processed in the country where he or she first entered the EU. That means that the three countries where asylum seekers have tended to concentrate – Greece, Italy and Hungary – have had to bear the brunt of the problem.
More sensible and flexible rules, and more willingness to act by all the members of the EU, would have defused this issue a long time ago, and we would not even be talking about it today.