In a desperate bid to halt the influx of refugees from the islands of the Aegean to the heartland of the European continent, EU leaders are currently debating plans to help Macedonia shut its southern border to new arrivals. If it goes through, the move will effectively ring-fence Greece and trap hundreds of thousands of refugees in one of the EU’s most fragile member states.
With the backing of Brussels and Berlin, this double exclusion – of refugees and of Greece – would finally formalize what many have been observing for years now: the fact that the process of European integration, once considered irreversible, has already gone into a headlong retreat.
While the European Dream has been slowly coming undone for almost a decade now, the refugee crisis seriously risks pushing the union to a breaking point. The Schengen area of border-free travel, long coveted alongside the monetary union as one of the two flagships of the EU’s integration process, is buckling under the weight of the largest movement of displaced people since the end of World War II – and there is absolutely no end in sight to the human and political drama yet.
Several EU countries have already reintroduced border controls over the past half year, while others have erected new fences to keep out those fleeing war, poverty and persecution. Last week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – whose government currently holds the rotating EU presidency – warned that European leaders have just six to eight weeks to save the Schengen system, before the coming of spring eases the weather and the mass migration of last summer undoubtedly resumes.
Excluding peripheral and “troublesome” Greece from Schengen is seen by many as a last-ditch attempt on the part of EU leaders to defend the freedom of travel between the countries of the core. The truth, however, is that ring-fencing Greece – while doing nothing to resolve the real causes of the ongoing exodus – will sacrifice the very principles upon which the EU was supposed to be founded, suffocating any sense of solidarity still remaining at the heart of the European project.
While the EU was once conceived to stand for “union in diversity”, its first major confrontation with actual diversity is now threatening to unravel the union at the seams. Where borders were supposed to fade, new fences are being erected; where liberal values were supposed to triumph, the most elementary human right to asylum is being trampled; where European peoples were supposed to be united in brotherhood, they are increasingly being torn apart and pitched against one another.
In the process, the expansive and inclusionary aura that once surrounded the European project is revealed for the ideological smokescreen it was all along. It is now clear that EU’s supposedly progressive commitment to diversity and human rights was always a thinly veiled disguise for the continent’s deeply ingrained attachment to national identity and its jealous defense of economic privilege.
Fanned by the social insecurity wrought by three decades of neoliberal reform and seven years of capitalist crisis, long-standing reactionary sentiments are now resurfacing with a vengeance, exemplified in the rise of the nationalist and Islamophobic right and the resurgence of proto- and neo-fascist movements across the continent, including Pegida in Germany, Jobbik in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Golden Dawn in Greece.
Needless to say, the refugees themselves did not cause this political paralysis; the arrival of large numbers of displaced people merely revealed the deep-seated rot at the heart of the European Union. If anything or anyone has brought the EU to this breaking point, it has been the utter incapacity of the Brussels bureaucracy and the sheer unwillingness of national political elites to provide moral leadership and confront the crisis in a humane and politically responsible way.
While ring-fencing Greece would undoubtedly please hardliners like Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful German finance minister who has long pushed for Greece’s exclusion from the monetary union in the hope of building a much more closely knit Kerneuropa, any decision to re-erect national borders is likely to backfire in the near future, for the very simple reason that it fails to address the underlying causes of the refugee crisis, on the one hand, and the EU’s disintegration on the other.
In reality, cutting Greece loose will further dissolve the very glue that once held the ideal of a unified Europe together: the notion (or rather the illusion) of international solidarity and popular support for the integration process. No amount of rules or compacts can replace the fragile international peace and social consensus for the European project that Schäuble and his fellow hardliners are now helping to destroy with their reactionary response to the EU’s most existential crisis to date.
Only meaningful solidarity with refugees and the periphery can save the worthwhile ideal of a unified and open Europe. If it is allowed to stand, Greece’s ring-fence will prove to be the rope with which the union finally hangs itself.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.