THE  WORLD  IN  2016  -  THE ECONOMIST magazine

Desperate for Europe

The migrant mess

Tom Nuttall BRUSSELS

Can Europe respond better than it has so far?

The European Union begins 2016 facing four big threats. First, in Greece, Alexis Tsipras's left-wing government will struggle to implement the tougher provisions of the €86 billion ($95 billion) bail-out it signed in August 2015, and its creditors may baulk at coughing up funds. The second concern is Russia. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has eased as President Vladimir Putin has trained his jets' sights on anti-regime forces in Syria, but a ceasefire plan has not been fully implemented. Mr Putin could seek to link Syria and Ukraine, perhaps by offering to help unseat Bashar al-Assad in exchange for an easing of sanctions. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and others will resist that, but more doveish European countries could be tempted. The third is Britain's referendum on its membership of the club, which may be held in 2016. Concessions granted to David Cameron, the prime minister, as part of his renegotiation could inspire Eurosceptics in other countries to seek their own exemptions from EU rules, further weakening its bonds.

Yet the fourth threat, the migrant crisis, may prove the toughest of all. A winter lull in the numbers reaching Greece from Turkey will provide EU countries with breathing space, although refuge will have to be found for the many thousands already in Europe. But the flow will resume in the spring, and with it the tensions that have seen border controls imposed within the Schengen passport-free zone, refugees bounced like pinballs from country to country, and some of the most poisonous arguments between leaders the EU has known.

Europe cannot "solve" its migrant crisis, but it can seek to manage it. The question is whether it will do so in co-ordinated fashion. If not, Schengen could buckle; the danger is of a domino effect as one border closure (perhaps Germany's with Austria) forces neighbouring countries to follow suit. That in turn could spark new migratory routes, through countries like Bosnia or Romania, or across the Adriatic to Italy. Another fear is of overcrowding in Greece, the first EU country many migrants reach. Semi-permanent reception centres may have to be set up.

Anger rising

All this will strengthen the hand of anti-immigrant forces across Europe. France and Germany will be gearing up for elections in 2017. In France, mercifully far from the Balkans route favoured by most migrants, Marine Le Pen will nonetheless continue her ascent. The Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany party will hope to translate domestic anxiety into political support (and, in regional elections, votes), but strains within the ruling coalition could prove more damaging for Mrs Merkel. Support for anti-immigrant populists elsewhere, such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the Danish People's Party, will tug governments rightwards. Eastern European leaders will be caught between German demands that they accept more refugees and angry voters who want migrants to be someone else's problem.

Governments that have already taken in large numbers will have to start integrating them. The biggest challenge will be in Germany, but Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands will also be tested. New arrivals will need housing, health care, language lessons and easing into labour markets. School places must be found for their children. Under pressure at home, many governments will take a tougher line in European negotiations on matters like border controls and returning failed asylum-seekers.

There will be tinkering from Brussels, too. The European Commission will propose a revision to the EU's "Dublin regulation", now mainly honoured in the breach, which says asylum-seekers must make their claims in the first EU country they reach. It will try to beef up border patrols. Much of its energy, though, will be devoted to relocating asylum-seekers who arrive in Greece and Italy to other EU countries, under a a domino effect burden-sharing plan agreed by most governments in 2015. The difficulty of finding candidates for relocation may mean the plan fizzles, or is replaced by alternatives.

One of those could be a much greater effort on resettlement: moving refugees directly to Europe from countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, with the help of the UNHCR. In spring the commission will call on EU governments to take in far more refugees. Others will urge rich countries elsewhere, such as America and the Gulf Arab states, to do more. One idea is for an international conference at which governments will make resettlement pledges, perhaps aiming to help over lM refugees.

This will be hard for countries already struggling to integrate newcomers. But creating an orderly way for large numbers of refugees to enter Europe may be the only way to manage the disorderly flows—and to prevent the political arguments from getting out of control. ■