The Crisis Europe Needs

BERKELEY – It’s hard to be optimistic about Europe. Last summer, a political cage match between Germany and Greece threatened to tear the European Union apart. In country after country, extremist political parties are gaining ground. And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, in the EU’s backyard, has turned the common European foreign and security policy into a punch line.

Now comes the refugee crisis. The EU’s 28 member states are quibbling over how to distribute 120,000 refugees, when more than three times that number crossed the Mediterranean in the first nine months of 2015 alone.

Refugees are coming by land as well as sea. Germany alone expects as many as a million asylum-seekers this year. It is risible to think that European governments will be able to deport, or “repatriate” in diplomacy-speak, any substantial fraction of these arrivals. Like a rubber ball, they will only come bouncing back.

Nor is there agreement on how to handle this flood of humanity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel first declared that her country had a historical obligation to absorb refugees, before backing down in the face of political criticism. Hungary opened its borders, hoping that the human tide would flow onward, but then erected a razor-wire fence when it turned out that there were too few welcoming destinations. The EU’s Eastern European members initially resisted taking their share of the 120,000; but, dependent on fiscal transfers from the EU’s wealthier members, they fell into line after diplomatic arm-twisting similar to that administered to Greece.