The European Union (EU), which was founded in the decade after World War II and is one of the most successful international organizations the world has ever seen, is facing a battle for its very survival.
Having been battered by the [Greek] financial crisis for the past few years, it now faces the prospect of coming apart over the challenge of dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, mostly from Syria. Its institutional framework, designed for slow consensus building, is ill suited to deal with matters of such urgency and controversy.
Both crises have created deep divisions within the Union, and it is far from clear how they can be overcome.
To be fair, neither crisis had its origin in the EU. The financial crisis resulted from the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in the United States.
The contagion effect soon enveloped Europe and other parts of the world.
The current migration crisis had its origin in the 2003 US-led (and partly European supported) invasion of Iraq, which upended the delicate balance of power that had existed in the region for several decades. But the EU’s response to both has been slow, incoherent and ineffective.
Whereas the first crisis could be solved by decisive action, no such prospect exists for the second. As admirable as Angela Markel’s invitation to thousands of Syrian refugees has been, it is unlikely to be copied by more than a handful of her fellow EU leaders. Lack of money is not the problem. On the contrary, experience has shown that migrants, even in large numbers, can be a net benefit to the societies they join, at least over the long haul.
Western European nations successfully absorbed about 15 million refugees from the East after World War II. In addition, unfavorable demographic trends in Europe actually demand that these nations open their doors to more immigrants.
But political leaders are running scared. Never mind the throngs of Germans and Austrians who welcomed refugees in Munich, Vienna, and elsewhere. It will soon end. The more they are welcomed in Europe, the more refugees will want to come.
There are more than 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, just waiting for the opportunity to leave behind the squalid conditions they now live in. Germany expects 800,000 to arrive this year alone, and it demands, quite reasonably, that the burden be shared by its 27 fellow EU member states. But most of their leaders face strong opposition from publics which, sadly, do not relish the prospect of tens of thousands of Muslims moving to their countries. And in many countries, including Germany, anti-immigrant violence is already on the rise.
Most leaders would much rather defy the EU than their voters. In fact, they will be given credit by their voters for defying the EU! That is a self-defeating incentive structure for the EU.