Suddenly summoned to react after the shocking picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi impassioned citizens to demand a political response, European governments gave the disheartening impression last week of being faced with an unpredictable tsunami which had caught them unawares, and to which a clear response was nowhere to be seen. Yet this crisis comes as no surprise. Since the beginning of 2015, 2500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean while making their journey to Europe, and the on-going crisis has been subject to much discussion during the numerous summits this year. Until now, the European Union seemed to be muddling along, trying - and failing - to reach a consensus among its divided nations, measures taken woefully inadequate for the scale of the crisis. The June summit was such a display of bad-tempered exchanges between the national leaders of Europe with, among others, Italian PM Matteo Renzi reportedly saying “if this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it”, following bitter exchanges with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
Two months later, the bickering has not ended and Europe’s leaders were yet again at odds over the collective response in the face of pressing public concern. In a letter last Friday, France, Italy and Germany’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs called for “a fair distribution of refugees” throughout the EU. They stated "Europe must protect refugees in need of protection in a humane way - regardless of which EU country they arrive in." In contrast, the Visegrad states - Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – affirmed their opposition to quotas of refugee relocation between countries at a meeting the same day, exemplifying the discordance that has been reigning for what seems to be too long (if not between these particular countries, then between others).
Indeed what this past week has shed light upon are, once again, the limits of current EU politics and frame of mind. As pressure on member states to come up with a coordinated plan mounts and will continue to rise as more refugees and economic migrants arrive, there is an evident lack of leadership, unity and vision. The long-term challenge for Europe is managing crises: the migrant crisis is one example of a larger issue with the union’s institutions and framework. As with Greece and the Euro crisis, the EU never appears to live up to its citizens’ expectations, moving sluggishly and in cacophony.
So if Europe cannot actively come up with coherent responses to the challenges it faces, its durability may be threatened. Although there may be an underlying determination from EU leaders to hold the union together, it must be strongly displayed in contrast to their weak performance this summer, or repeated divisions and passiveness will get the better of it. Stumble after stumble, Europe needs to pick itself up once and for all. Lives depend on it.