Europe’s Test in North Africa

LONDON – Europe’s reaction to the historic revolutions in North Africa has vacillated between exhilaration and fear. The natural instinct to celebrate and support democratization across the Mediterranean has been tempered by concerns that the crisis will spill onto European shores.

A few leaders have invoked the post-World War II Marshall Plan as a model for large-scale European development assistance for the region, the aim being to ensure the sustainability of a democratic transformation and generate long-term political and economic benefits for Europe. But the mainstream reaction has been much more fearful: media and politicians throughout the European Union are obsessing about the threat of waves of migrants reaching their borders.

Such a threat should not be taken lightly. Already, the controversy over Tunisian migrants in Italy has started to fray the political underpinnings that allow free movement in the Schengen area. The war in Libya, meanwhile, could lead to many more thousands of civilians fleeing the violence and needing international protection.

So far, nearly 400,000 people have filled refugee camps in Tunisia and Egypt, and an estimated 20,000 have reached Italy’s shores. Dealing with any surge of asylum seekers will require the EU to strengthen its capacity to offer temporary protection – and possibly to reconsider how its overall asylum system works. That the Union has been moving towards a common approach to border security, most visibly with the expansion of the Frontex border agency, will be of help here.