The weather has turned, and with it Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. Summer brought hope, in the shape of Angela Merkel’s promise that no Syrian refugee would be turned away from Germany. There was also gradual progress towards a resettlement quota that would distribute 160,000 asylum-seekers around the EU, and lay the groundwork for a system able to host the men, women and children fleeing barrel bombs in Aleppo, or Isis in Iraq, or civil war in South Sudan.
But now a freeze has settled in. Cold weather, for once, has hardly slowed the number of arrivals: 1,600 land in Greece every day, more than were coming at the height of summer in July 2014. Asylum-seekers may feel the risk of freezing to death is secondary to that of setting off too late and arriving to find a border wall. They would not think so groundlessly.
“Yes we can,” Ms Merkel’s mantra, has been bruised by events: the Chancellor’s popularity is falling as the German asylum systems creak. Yesterday the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, offered a variant of “no we can’t”, citing the “total destabilisation” of European societies. The prospect of harmonious integration – formerly promoted by Ms Merkel – may not recover from the rash of sexual assaults in Cologne over the new year, mirrored in parts of Scandinavia. This week the German President, Joachim Gauck, said the country must consider a cap on refugee numbers. (If democrats do not, Mr Gauck said, “xenophobes and the far-right will”.)
The asylum-seeker resettlement quota that might have eased such pressures has foundered: only 322 people have been moved by it, as the more recalcitrant states – mainly in Eastern Europe – make good on threats not to fulfil their side of the bargain. Meanwhile, more borders close, putting the Schengen agreement at risk, alongside the EU’s founding commitment to provide shelter to those whose lives are at risk.
What would be needed, to stop the continent retreating into its shell, is a sense of proportion, matched by thick skin and long-term vision. Few today would believe that asylum applications in the early 1990s, from the Balkans in particular, roughly matched the levels seen today (760,000 in 1992, for example). Nor would many cast a second glance at the IMF report stating that current rates of immigration would prove to the benefit of Europe’s economy, if the burden were shared across all member states, with increased spending on new infrastructure benefiting all citizens.
Hopes that the problem can be solved at source are highly optimistic. It seems improbable that Turkey will close the thoroughfares for migrants in return for the €3bn (£2.2bn) in aid it has been promised, when Europe itself has failed to send back anywhere near the number of failed asylum-seekers it should. Only the establishment of special economic zones in countries such as Jordan, where Syrians could work and set up businesses (they are currently prevented from doing so), would provide the right kind of incentive not to make a tilt at Europe.
The official end of the Dublin agreement – which forced migrants to claim asylum where they first made land – offers one last chance to revive a stronger quota system. That remains the only way to handle the influx humanely. Ms Merkel’s mistake was not to say “yes we can”, but to act on her own, without alerting her allies and without a quota system in place. She made the right move, but stepped out of line. Unfortunately there are few second chances in geopolitics, and the strong support of the European Commission counts for little in the face of growing isolationism among the elected leaders of member states.
Even if Europe turns its back, nobody should be in any doubt that asylum-seekers will keep coming, and in huge numbers. The only choice lies between managing these people, or ignoring them in the vain hope that they will go away. It looks increasingly like that decision has already been made.