The European Union (EU) is in a crisis. Not an acute crisis requiring a strong reaction, but a lingering malaise. The global recession of the last few years hit the continent hard, and many of the countries are laden with debt and facing slow or non-existent economic growth and high unemployment.
Another crisis faces the institutions in Brussels: what is Europe? Is it a confederation of states moving ever closer to political union, a United States of Europe? Is it merely a free trade agreement? These are not easy questions to answer, and it’s what at the base of most political disputes over the EU.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated this week that multiculturalism will not work in Hungary, and his party now seeks to limit immigration. A lot of the current debate on immigration to Europe stems from the humanitarian crisis of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya in less-than-seaworthy boats. The EU is floating a proposal to place quotas on member states to take in a certain number of migrants.
This is a thorny issue. Far-right parties in various EU countries have made political gains in recent years, and immigrants are always an easy scapegoat for economic woes like unemployment. While the United States seems adept at assimilating immigrants from all over the world, immigration is attracting much more backlash in Europe.
Immigration and how much assimilation (or not) is going to take place in Europe is a question that Europe will have to answer for itself. In my view, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean needs immediate addressing to prevent further loss of life. Boats should be rescued promptly, and those with legitimate asylum claims should have their applications reviewed, in accordance with international agreements that EU member states signed. However, rescuing boats at sea is only a temporary patch on a deep problem. Libya needs a functioning government, and it’s EU members (France and the UK) that need to take the lead in rebuilding and ending the civil war there, since they were the ones who led the airstrikes who toppled Qaddafi in 2011. The smugglers need to be stopped, by destroying their boats if necessary. And the rescue of the boats shouldn’t be advertised, as it could create perverse incentives.
But the broader question of immigration to Europe is something that could prove the breaking point to the EU. If enough nationalist politicians start to gain power over anger at the status quo, this could lead other leaders to slant to the nationalistic right on questions like this in order to win elections. Of course, the last time a nationalistic wave swept across Europe was the 1930s, so Europe and the world could be in for interesting times ahead.