In the aftermath of the November terrorist attacks in Paris, words of solidarity resounded around Europe. But actions have since been harder to find.
Indeed, at a time when the European Union’s legitimacy is questioned across the continent, the twin challenges of terror and immigration have provoked and amplified divisions. The prospect of peace and long-term prosperity is being jeopardized by a combination of perceived inaction and reactionary decisionmaking.
Security over economic stability
France responded to last year’s attacks, which left more than 130 dead, by striking the headquarters of the militant Islamist group to which the perpetrators had claimed fealty: the self-declared Islamic State.
President François Holland declared a three-month state of emergency and raised security spending by €600 million this year.
He also called on his European allies for a joint response and sharing of responsibilities.
Specifically, Hollande asked for recognition of the financial burden of increased military spending in the context of the EU stability pact, which requires a reduction of France’s deficit to under 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2017.
France has missed its fiscal targets before, but European officials appear to recognize that this is different. Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said that the budget situation of each member state will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Solidarity in security
France invoked a EU treaty defense article, calling for military support from the rest of the bloc. This mutual defence clause, used for the first time, requires all member states to provide “aid and assistance” if a country suffers an armed attack on its territory. EU states agreed unanimously to accept their obligations in principle.
Although the article compels member states to “mobilize all instruments at their disposal,” the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, made specific reference to military support. With aid and assistance being offered along bilateral lines rather than collectively, there is no sign yet of a unified response.
By way of example, some nations share intelligence outside EU channels, but this falls short of an effective EU intelligence service.
Germany moved swiftly, holding a snap vote on military assistance in early December. Subsequently, German military support — including 12,000 troops — was sent to the Syrian conflict zone to provide refueling, reconnaissance and naval protection.
The United Kingdom, after a ten-hour parliamentary debate, followed suit with an undertaking to provide supplementary air assault on Islamic State targets in Syria. Britain is the twelfth member of an American-led coalition to bomb in the region.
Italy, by contrast, warned against gut reactions dictating foreign policy with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi saying that the promotion of a more inclusive EU identity would provide an “immune system of our society against fanaticism.”
Deeper migratory split
Despite much talk of solidarity and certain military support, this opportunity to unite against a common evil has served other political ends.
Rather than focus on the homegrown nature of the Paris attacks, an emphasis has been placed on the fact that one of the perpetrators had returned from waging jihad in Syria. Some did so to reiterate their belief in the primacy of sovereignty, others with designs of an exit from the union. The outcome either way could be a blurring of the lines between asylum seekers and would-be terrorists.
German solidarity on issues of security are consistent with its calls for solidarity on migration. Angela Merkel, in her New Year’s address, asked the German people to view the refugee crisis as “tomorrow’s opportunity.” She will hope, rather than expect, that the message meets with goodwill across the continent, notwithstanding the threats of a British exit from the EU and new waves of nationalist populism — fueled most recently by sexual assaults in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve.
The way ahead
In the wake of the Paris attacks, a meeting of EU interior ministers agreed once again that, on a temporary basis, systematic and coordinated checks at external borders would be necessary on external and EU citizens alike. These would remain in place until mandatory changes to the 26-nation strong Schengen Agreement were implemented.
However, similar attempts were made a year ago, after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, with little to show for it.
Were a consensus to be reached, Chancellor Merkel would hope that a regulated and legal pathway can be created for refugees, already in Europe and those waiting in Turkey, to be (re)distributed across the EU in line with countries’ financial and demographic capacity. This should help flush out illegal routes and smuggler exploitation.
Such solidarity is unlikely to show immediate results: the EU route of consensus is too long and laborious.
160,000 asylum seekers are to be resettled under a refugee relocation scheme, but this process has stuttered as authorities have been unable to keep migrants at so-called “hotspots” for collection. Others have resisted relocation. Only 0.17 percent of asylum seekers have been resettled so far.
With commitment to a shared cause floundering, after a flawed first attempt at tackling the crisis, now is the time for increased resolve and focus.
Merkel has expended considerable political capital on what could be a career-defining stand for an open Europe. She has met fierce resistance from her Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, while Austria, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia have all built barbed wire fences on their borders to keep immigrants out.
Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden have also reintroduced border controls. This reflects the scale of the problem.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, has said that current immigration numbers are unsustainable. Over three million came in 2015 alone.
Still, leaders must guard against short-termism. The stability of the European Union and the values it represents require a coordinated response, one that looks both at internal security and the humanitarian causes on and beyond Europe’s borders.
As things stand, such calls for solidarity could fall on deaf ears.