By removing internal border controls, countries party to the Schengen Agreement effectively abandoned a core element of state sovereignty in favor of freedom of movement. But they embarked on this federal project without building the necessary legal and institutional foundation and without setting up crucial common arrangements to secure their external borders and manage migration and asylum. And just as Europe’s 2008 financial crisis exposed the design flaws of the monetary union, the 2015–2016 refugee crisis revealed the brittleness of the Schengen system. However, this is where the similarity ends; the political dynamics of the two crises played out much differently.

During the financial crisis, EU members came together to reinforce the monetary union through powerful new instruments and sacrificed control over their banking systems to save the euro. The response to the recent refugee crisis was just the opposite. By falling back on national measures, such as border controls or fences, to contain the inflows of migrants and asylum seekers, member states chose to sacrifice part of the functionality of Schengen rather than limit their national decisionmaking on migration and asylum. This logic of re-nationalization, combined with the rise of xenophobia and identity politics in many EU countries, now hampers the development of robust collective instruments to deal with migration challenges.

Nevertheless, stronger EU rules and institutions clearly remain the key to controlling the external border and establishing effective policies on asylum and migration. A more ambitious approach is needed to set up a genuinely integrated asylum system and better coordinate migration policy. And the deficits in capacity and trust among member states must be addressed. If this does not happen, the EU will remain vulnerable to another surge in migration, and the long-term sustainability of the Schengen system—and maybe even the EU itself—will be in serious jeopardy.

Still in Shock

The EU received 43 percent fewer asylum applications in 2017 than it did in 2016. The mass reception centers have mostly emptied, and the school gyms and army barracks have reverted to their original functions. But while the acute crisis has ended, the situation has hardly normalized. The 2018 Italian elections demonstrate that concerns surrounding migration and asylum continue to dominate the public space and shape national and EU politics. Border controls at several internal Schengen borders are still in place, and migration remains the top concern of EU citizens.

This raises a key question: why has the 2015 influx of 1.4 million refugees had such a lasting, traumatic impact on the collective European psyche? After all, asylum seekers only constitute a minor portion of overall migration into Europe; EU member states issued 12.5 million first-time residence permits to non-EU citizens from 2012 to 2016. Also, other countries have coped with greater refugee flows with less political upheaval. Turkey, with a total population of 80 million people, is now home to 3.7 million registered refugees. In Lebanon, refugees currently account for nearly 30 percent of the population.

One possible answer is the sheer unexpectedness of the refugee crisis. The last massive flow of refugees into the EU followed the Yugoslav Wars in the mid-1990s. Between then and 2015, most Europeans lived in undisturbed comfort and security. They were certainly aware of the growing instability in Europe’s neighborhood, the crisis in Ukraine, and the turmoil of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. But these troubles seemed to be far away, with little consequence for the EU. And then, suddenly, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants climbed out of boats, walked across borders, and occupied public spaces in European towns and villages. Their chaotic arrival not only shattered an illusion of tranquility but also pointed to Europe’s loss of control.

The refugees also arrived at a moment when Europe was just emerging from the worst economic crisis of the postwar period. The fact that the new arrivals would, at least initially, place a burden on social services and budgets aggravated the public’s frustration. In particular, Europe’s poorest populations soon felt that the refugees were enjoying privileged access to benefits and financial support, while they themselves were losing out.

Public concern further deepened when the mass inflows began to be associated with Islamic terrorism and increased criminality. Even though most terrorist acts were committed by European citizens and overall crime rates remained low, the media’s relentless focus on incidents involving asylum seekers increased Europeans’ sense of insecurity.

Migration is a deeply emotional issue that gets under everyone’s skin and polarizes society. Touching on the sense of identity of groups and nations, it mobilizes solidarity in some people but triggers fear and hate in others. The trauma of the refugee crisis has affected the tone of political discourse, which has become increasingly aggressive. In many EU member states, nationalism and identity politics have gained ground, and views that used to be broadly criticized as xenophobic have become commonplace. Populist political forces—as well as some mainstream politicians and media outlets—are benefiting from anxieties about migration and doing everything they can to keep them alive.

Still Divided

At the beginning of the 2015–2016 crisis, EU member states divided into sharply opposed camps. Some Northern and Western European countries—such as Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden—joined Germany in prioritizing humanitarian concerns and allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees to cross their borders. Other Western European countries, such as France and the UK, responded more cautiously and took far fewer refugees. The Central European states immediately opted for restrictive policies.

However, attitudes began to shift as the flow of refugees gathered momentum toward the end of 2015. More governments, including Germany’s, began to adopt tougher policies to reduce the number of arrivals. This new restrictive consensus resulted in the signing of an EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016, the establishment of an EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, and numerous other steps to tighten control of the EU’s external border and curtail inflows along the Libya-Italy route.

Yet this convergence of views on tightening external migration does not mean that member states have overcome their fundamental differences on burden sharing and solidarity. In September 2015, the EU committed to relocating 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states within two years, but the initiative ran into massive resistance from several Central European countries. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland outright refused to comply with the decision, triggering court cases and, in the case of Hungary, even a referendum.

This contention has also stymied comprehensive reform of the Common European Asylum System. Reform efforts were supposed to lead to a better arrangement for the states responsible for processing asylum applications. Under the system’s current Dublin Regulation, the country where an asylum seeker enters EU territory is responsible for dealing with the asylum claim. This arrangement places a particular burden on Greece and Italy, where most asylum seekers arrive. However, these countries have often neglected their obligations under the Dublin Regulation and allowed asylum seekers to move on to Northern European states—which, in recent years, have received the majority of asylum claims.

Aware of the sensitivity around the issue, in 2016, the European Commission proposed a small modification to the regulation: although the point of entry would still determine which state was responsible, if that state faced a disproportionate number of asylum seekers, a “corrective allocation mechanism” would trigger the transfer of cases to less burdened states. The theory was that this change would increase state compliance with the core Dublin Regulation.

But the concept of an obligatory relocation immediately became a divisive issue. Proponents of the modification felt that the EU needed to live up to its humanitarian obligations and remain open to refugees—that managing the challenge was a collective responsibility. They believed that all countries enjoying the benefits of free movement should do their part to take care of people in need of protection.

Opponents who rejected what they viewed as a quota system felt that no country should be obligated by EU decisions to accept third-country citizens on its territory—that the solution would lie in the stronger protection of external borders and the prevention of irregular entries. They believed that the EU should help vulnerable populations in the crisis regions but deny access to anyone attempting to irregularly enter EU space.

The dispute touched on the very essence of the EU: Was it a real community of destiny or just a group of states bound by transactional arrangements? Was the decision on who lives in a state a national prerogative or something that could be regulated by Brussels? Was the EU destined to become a multiracial globalized space, or were European nations entitled to defend their individual cultural and ethnic distinctiveness?

It would be wrong to reduce the debate to a clash between Western and Central Europe. While none of the latter states favored obligatory relocation, some were quite open to the concept of burden sharing. And some Western European countries seemed equally reluctant to accept an automatic distribution of refugees, even during a crisis. But the debate did highlight the vastly different migration experiences of member states. For postcommunist countries—with relatively homogeneous populations—hosting refugees of different cultural and religious backgrounds was a much more sensitive issue than for Western European countries long accustomed to the presence of large, foreign-born communities.

Finally, there were practical considerations. Some governments and experts doubted the wisdom of a redistribution, as asylum seekers often leave their assigned destinations and move to more desirable countries. Other proposed legislation would penalize such secondary movements, but in a borderless Schengen space, there are ultimately no safeguards against them. Implementing the relocation scheme would also require complex, coercive machinery, shipping many people against their will through Europe. Finally, relocation—as it is under discussion now—would only apply to people with a good chance of receiving asylum. It would not deal with the numerous irregular arrivals who have little prospect of receiving protected status.

Relocation is not the only contentious aspect of the proposed reforms of the Common European Asylum System. The European Commission’s seven proposals for new legislation are hardly revolutionary and do not challenge the primacy of national decisionmaking. But they do strive for a degree of harmonization—both on the substantive rules for asylum decisions and on the procedures and conditions of reception. In December 2017, the commission submitted a road map for reaching a deal on a comprehensive migration package by the summer of 2018. But given persistent, deep divisions, this plan seems highly ambitious.

The EU could cut through this Gordian knot by resorting to majority voting, as it did for the relocation scheme in September 2015. But the political backlash against that decision taught the EU an important lesson: if the political stakes are high enough, decisions made by majority voting might be perfectly legal but still lack the necessary legitimacy in the eyes of the public in the outvoted countries. Therefore, every effort will be made to achieve results by consensus. Regarding the Dublin Regulation, this probably means burden sharing based on voluntary rather than obligatory contributions. Considerable watering down of other legislation might also be required. Even if some kind of compromise can be reached, the underlying divisions among member states are likely to persist.

Still Not Resilient

The lack of movement on reforms ultimately means that the EU remains woefully unprepared for another refugee crisis. And, unfortunately, there are numerous possible events that could trigger another massive wave of migration: the succession crisis that could ensue if Algeria’s elderly president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, were to die could undermine the country’s public order, prompting masses of young people frustrated about the lack of economic opportunity to seek a better future in the EU. An attempt by General Khalifa Haftar to take over Libya could escalate into a full-blown civil war and send a new wave of migrants toward the EU. An escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine or further destabilization in the country could lead to a surge of refugees and migrants into Central Europe. Environmental catastrophes or severe economic crises in some African countries could cause migration pressure on Europe to rise suddenly.

Of course, the EU’s political climate is different now, so its response to a new surge of asylum seekers and migrants would also be different. The days of a Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) are unlikely to come back. Instead of allowing large numbers of people to move through Europe, the EU would probably seek to contain the inflows at the external border or, failing that, at national borders. Governments would be much quicker to impose border controls and to reinforce them by deploying security forces and building fences. A proliferation of Calais-type informal camps at borders is therefore more likely. However, such a response would require considerable coercive measures, which would pose humanitarian and security challenges that might be quite different but not necessarily easier to manage.

The EU’s legal and institutional tinkering to date would certainly be put to the test. Will any improvements made over the last several years be consequential? As indicated earlier, strengthening collective crisis management abilities has not been a central objective of migration reforms. Yet the EU has taken some steps at an institutional level that, if largely supported by member states, could increase their preparedness.

In 2016, Frontex became the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and its capacity is continuing to grow. In 2017, it employed 500 staff, and this number is projected to double by 2020. Its budget of 238 million euros in 2016 rose to 281 million in 2017 and is expected to increase to 322 million by 2020. In addition to its core staff, the agency now has 1,500 border guards and officials at its disposal from EU member states. Currently, its main function is to coordinate the deployment of additional experts and technical equipment to border areas that are under pressure. The agency also analyzes risks, monitors irregular migration, and is increasingly involved in return operations.

Not surprisingly, however, some states have been reluctant to give Frontex stronger powers. Greece, in particular, has sometimes hesitated to cooperate with Frontex. The European Commission’s idea of granting the agency the right to intervene went too far for a number of EU countries. The text eventually adopted still makes any intervention dependent on the consent of the concerned government, but it includes a legal obligation for member states to cooperate with the agency. Noncompliance could result in the closure of the Schengen border against the respective state.

Another institution, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) based in Malta, will experience a similar transformation to become the EU Agency for Asylum. And its staff and budget will also grow. The EASO’s budget rose from 53 million euros in 2016 to 87 million in 2017 and, under its new mandate, is expected to increase to 114 million by 2020. The size of its staff is expected to grow from 125 people in 2016 to 500 by 2020. The European Commission sees this agency as primarily driving the harmonization of asylum policy. By collecting and analyzing information on refugees’ countries of origin, the agency will facilitate the convergence of member state decisions. It will also provide technical and operational support and coordinate national cooperation to ensure greater consistency in asylum practices.

These institution-building efforts are not negligible. They certainly enhance the EU’s collective ability to deal with difficult situations. But will these measures be sufficient in a real crisis? Neither of these two agencies has a mandate to take charge in an emergency. Member states’ exclusive responsibility for protecting their stretch of the EU’s external border remains untouched. The key to coping with crisis situations lies in effectively protecting the external borders, greatly accelerating the processing of asylum claims, and developing a robust returns policy for people not in need of protection. All these objectives require well-functioning border management and national asylum systems that are currently out of reach of the countries most exposed to renewed flows of refugees. The vast differences in capability and the consequent deficits in trust and cooperation among member states continue to be the real Achilles’ heel of EU migration and asylum policies.

Facing an Uncertain Future

But the picture is not entirely bleak. Over the past two years, the EU has made significant progress in managing the external dimension of migration. EU institutions have become more effective at working with third countries to fight smuggling networks, facilitate the return of illegal migrants, and develop instruments to address the root causes of migration. There are still big gaps in the EU’s partnerships with African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, but there is greater understanding today that the external management of migration will require a massive mobilization of resources and continuing political engagement.

Despite this progress on the external front, sudden surges of migration toward Europe are still likely to happen. In the long term, the Schengen system will only be sustainable if it is underpinned by clear common policies and robust institutions with executive mandates. All the legislative and institution-building efforts of recent years have not remedied the fundamental flaw of the system. A common, state-like space will not hold up against severe migration challenges as long as it is essentially up to individual member states to protect the external border and make decisions on asylum and migration. The incremental approach of current legislative efforts will not yield a crisis-proof system, even if some kind of compromise is achieved. Making Schengen sustainable will require a much more ambitious approach in the three key areas: external border protection, asylum procedures, and migration policy.

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency should not only assist national authorities with policing the external border but should also gradually take over the job itself. Integrating the approximately 100,000 national border guards into a coherent European force will obviously require time and considerable resources, but, ultimately, only a centrally organized institution with well-trained staff will be able to consistently manage all of the EU’s external frontiers.

As the European Commission suggested in 2016, the responsibility for processing asylum applications should, over the long term, be transferred to an EU decisionmaking agency with branches in all member states. This would allow a full harmonization of procedures and a consistent evaluation of protection needs. Such an agency could also run common programs to resettle refugees directly from crisis regions to the EU, thereby curtailing the practice of smuggling people on hazardous journeys.

A sustainable Schengen system also requires much closer coordination on migration policy. To reduce illegal migration and enhance cooperation with countries of origin, the EU should be able to offer legal channels, such as student visa programs or initiatives for seasonal workers or circular migrants. Many member states are currently unwilling to make such commitments, but the rapidly shrinking working-age population in the EU will eventually necessitate a significant number of immigrants with the necessary skill sets. In an internal market, member states should manage this issue in a coordinated manner and not in isolation from each other.

It is evident that many challenges prevent the EU from moving in this direction. The legislative proposals currently under discussion remain well below this level of ambition, and even they probably go beyond what member states are willing to accept. Despite the declining numbers of asylum seekers, the divisions among member states have deepened rather than abated. Mutual trust has deteriorated further, and, in some countries, nationalism and skepticism toward the EU have reemerged. Against this backdrop, it is hard to see how the so-called fair-weather Schengen system can become resilient and sustainable. Maybe it will take another refugee crisis to find out. Will member states muster the collective determination to build a solid foundation for their common space? Or will the system be one bridge too far for European integration and fall apart?

Stefan Lehne Visiting Scholar Carnegie Europe