Failed gamble: Europe's refugee crisis will not simply disappear - leaders have little choice but to accept a quota system


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The Independent Online

Woeful to begin with, the EU’s efforts to manage the refugee crisis sweeping through the continent plumbed new depths this week. There had been hope that an emergency meeting in Brussels would secure agreement on a quota system to share out 120,000 asylum-seekers across the bloc – by far the best option within reach. Nothing came of it. Instead, borders are closing and walls going up, as “fortress Europe” retreats to the same strategy that brought such chaos to its door in the first place.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was right to describe the crisis as a test of Europe’s principles. It is a test being failed. Hungary – largely to blame for the failure to agree a quota – formally closed its border with Serbia; Austria and Slovakia have also suspended their membership of the Schengen Agreement; others are weighing up whether to follow suit. What this amounts to for the asylum-seekers already within Europe (people, lest we forget, fleeing war) is a redoubling of hardship. They will be corralled into camps, forced to remain in places ill-equipped to support them, pushed into the willing hands of smugglers. The problem they present to European leaders will not simply disappear as a result. It will get worse.

Open borders, enshrined by Schengen, stand as one of the great achievements of the European Union. Another often cited is the UN Convention on Refugees, signed in 1951, which promised asylum to all who arrived in Europe at risk of their lives. It looks likely that both will be compromised – perhaps fatally – in the coming months, as member states choose to go their own way.

Co-operation is, and will remain, the only way to manage the influx humanely and soothe the sense of panic spreading from state to state. This has long been the position of Germany, alongside – more recently – France, Italy, Spain and other Western European nations.

It is a bitter irony, then, that a miscalculation by Ms Merkel appears to have set back progress towards sharing the burden. Comfortably the most powerful member of the EU, bordering eight other nations, Germany cannot but act as a weathervane for its smaller peers. So the decision on Sunday to close its borders to refugees arriving from Austria, even if temporarily, set off a domino effect, the consequences of which are now becoming clear.

Many believe the closure was a ploy to pressurise Eastern European nations, faced with having to host more refugees stuck in limbo on their way to Germany, to agree to introduce quotas. If that was the case, the gamble has backfired spectacularly. Europe still lacks quotas, but has instead gained a rash of treaty-breaking border controls. Individualism reigns.

But all is not lost. Ms Merkel has called for another emergency meeting on quotas, bringing forward the date for further discussion from October. The European Commission’s proposal was watered down in the first place – allowing participation on a “voluntary” basis, rather than compelling states to take part. It cannot be weakened much further to appease the likes of Hungary without undermining the purpose entirely.

The threat of EU funding cuts for recalcitrant nations must now be wielded in earnest. Hungary’s President, Viktor Orban, gives no indication that he understands a quota system would in fact reduce the asylum-seeker burden on his country. If Germany is left to act alone, it too will one day say “no more”. And the victims of war who make it to Europe – deserving of refugee status – will instead be forced into destitution, to the eternal shame of a supposed bastion of civilisation.