The Irrelevance of the EU

by George Hatjoullis

On the morning of September 2, 2015, I published a post on this blog entitled Refugees, Immigrants, and Humanity: J’accuse…. The blog was headed by the photograph of the little Syrian-Kurdish boy lying drowned on the beach. I had arisen early and was going through my Twitter and came across the photo. It had been retweeted by someone I followed. She apologised for re-Tweeting such a heartbreaking image. I immediately re-Tweeted adding that it was the child that deserved an apology and not our sensibility. I got a little stick for using the photo. I normally avoid such images but this time it seemed appropriate. It had penetrated even my hard heart. By the next day the image had even affected UK government policy. It is amazing what one image can achieve.

The thrust of the above blog was that the crisis, so painfully encapsulated by this image, has rendered the EU irrelevant. An article by Paul Mason in The Guardian on the 4th seemed to be saying much the same thing but I am not sure the significance of the charge of irrelevance is apparent. The EU is meant to be more than a collection of countries in a free trade area. It is meant to provide these countries with unity. It is meant to provide unifying principles, structures, and responses, to internal and external shocks. The eurozone crisis provided such a shock to a sub-structure within the EU (the eurozone) that was poorly conceived and constituted. It has survived. The refugee crisis and all the events that preceded it has been the first major external shock to the whole EU. The EU has failed at the first test.

Individual countries will always respond to shocks in different ways. The EU should have led its member states into a coherent and common response based on unifying principles. I think we can all agree this has not happened! Austria and Germany have opened their doors to refugees. Hungary has refused to even allow them to transport to Germany. Indeed the Hungarian prime minister has declared muslim refugees unwelcome and a threat to the christian tradition of Europe. The Treaty of Lisbon explicitly debated and rejected any religious basis for the EU. Many former Soviet countries, now members of the EU, have expressed reluctance to take in refugees. Ironic given how many were once refugees from the Soviets. Ireland has expressed reluctance to take refugees. Ironic given how many nations of the world are populated by the descendants of Irish economic migrants. Where is the EU unifying principle? Where, indeed, is the voice of the EU?

This is not to say that there are not difficult but legitimate questions to be answered. Why are the Sunni muslim refugees not staying in Erdogan’s Turkey or fleeing to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia? The Sunni muslim refugees probably do present some security risk to the west. However, this security risk already exists in the west. It will not come with the refugees. It is already here among EU-born muslims. The utterances of Orban, Hungary’s PM, or Farage or Le Pen, or Golden Dawn, will not diminish this threat. It may exacerbate it. It is true that it is best to set up processing centres in the camps dotted around Syria. This will help stop the flow through illegal, and dangerous, means. So why has the EU not done so in the last 4 years? It is best to resolve the source of the desire to leave the war-torn areas. Indeed it is but while the EU is doing this ( the EU is doing what?) should it just let 3-year-old boys drown?

No one is suggesting there is an easy answer to the crisis. It is the legacy of past foreign policy actions by the USA and Russia, aided by their various allies. It is the legacy of divisions within Islam. It is the legacy of colonialism and economic exploitation. Whatever the cause, it is now an EU problem. If the EU cannot respond as ‘the EU’, rather than simply Germany, Hungary or the UK, it is irrelevant and it may as well cease to exist. This is why irrelevance is the worst charge one can level at the EU. The UK is about to have a referendum on continued membership of the EU. Irrelevance may not help the case for remaining.