Over a third of European countries belonging to the Schengen zone imposed at least temporary border checks in 2015, threatening to undermine one of the main accomplishments of European integration – free movement. In Geopolitical Futures’ annual forecast for 2016, we wrote that this will be a year of significant fragmentation for the European Union. Europe will become a quilt of open borders, conditionally open borders and tightly controlled borders.
Today, Europe took another step intensifying the continent’s fragmentation. Sweden began implementing border checks for travelers arriving from Denmark, a transit point for refugees heading to Sweden. Sweden is a highly popular destination for refugees: in 2015, 163,000 people sought asylum in Sweden, according to official statistics. In response, Denmark, fearing a spike in asylum application due to Sweden’s new restrictions, introduced border checks on its border with Germany earlier today. These moves come a week after Norway announced that it will start turning back refugees arriving from other Schengen countries. Until now, most asylum seekers in Norway arrived via Sweden. Temporary border controls tend to have a domino effect: when one country feels overwhelmed or under domestic pressure to reduce the flow of refugees and imposes temporary border controls, other countries in the neighborhood often follow suit, fearing that the refugee flow will be redirected towards them.
The German government, watching borders tighten and doors shut for refugees north of the country, publicly warned that the Schengen zone is “in danger.” Scandinavian countries are a popular destination for refugees, along with Germany. Tighter controls in all countries along the refugee route north of Germany will likely translate into even more pressure on Berlin and a greater number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany itself. In 2015, Germany received about 1.1 million refugees – five times more than the previous year.
Germany has struggled to convince European Union members to accept a redistribution of refugees. Berlin has opted to work with a small group of countries, mostly from western Europe, to attempt to address the crisis, in recognition that the European Union has become too divided on the issue of refugees for a comprehensive, pan-European resettlement program to be achieved. Germany’s strategy has not been to implement quotas at home, but rather to find indirect ways, from creating a new European border force to granting Turkey financial assistance, to help reduce the flow of refugees to Germany. Nevertheless, as refugees continue arriving in Germany and as other European countries become less and less welcoming, the government in Berlin will continue grappling with domestic pressures to tighten refugee policies.
The refugee crisis has not only contributed to the ongoing fragmentation of Europe, but has also impacted the cohesion of Germany’s ruling coalition. Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure from her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party’s Bavarian sister party, Christian Social Union (CSU), to take a harder stance on refugees. Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU, has said that Germany can accept a “maximum of 200,000 refugees.” Under Merkel’s leadership, the CDU opted not to impose quotas.
But disagreements between the CDU and CSU may mask a larger problem than a simple political rift. Most refugees arrive first in Bavaria, and the majority of them are then distributed among different German states. Nevertheless, in late December, Bavaria’s state government asked the federal government in Berlin for the state to use its own police force to secure the Austrian border. The federal government declined the request, with the Federal Ministry of the Interior issuing a statement that the federal government alone has jurisdiction over national borders. Much of this may be political signaling, as the state government seeks more assistance from the federal government, but for a German state to publicly claim that the federal government is failing in a core responsibility – securing borders – and asking for the state to take on that role, is a significant development that highlights Germany’s internal political and regional divisions.
Europe has managed refugee crises much larger than the present one in the past: it must be remembered that in 1945, Allied and UN agencies together cared for and repatriated nearly seven million people, while a few million prisoners of war were making their way home and seven million other refugees and displaced people were in Soviet-controlled areas. Europe today does have the resources to address the refugee flow, but the response to the crisis – as the response to Europe’s financial problems – has been ad hoc. The refugee crisis is contributing to the fragmentation of Europe, but the inability of the European Union to effectively address the crisis is ultimately the result of long-standing internal divisions based on diverse political, security and economic imperatives that are coming to the fore.