Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
How many more years like 2015 can the EU cope with? In a matter of months, we could be heading to ballot boxes across the UK to vote in the Leave/Remain referendum. Nobody – even pollsters – can accurately predict at this point what might happen. The majority of voters will not consider the arguments until much closer to the time. Some will make up their minds based on any deal that David Cameron returns with from the February EU summit meeting. This may help to focus the minds of other EU leaders as they walk into that summit.
However, the renegotiation is not the be-all and end-all in most people’s minds. While many will consider if and how the UK’s membership of the EU affects the pound in their pocket and the security of their jobs, some will also ask whether the EU of today is capable of (or necessary for) providing solutions to the continent’s crises. In 2015, some of the so-called solutions seemed only to exacerbate the problems. The migration crisis was a case in point that has shown European irresponsibility at its worst.
EUvangelists arguing for more Europe or more laws to solve every problem might do well to reflect on the fact that not sticking to existing rules and commitments has in fact created more problems. Never has the call from our party for “the EU needs to do less and do it far better” been more true. Failure to show that EU countries can respond effectively to the migration crisis will have a significant impact on any referendum this summer – not because the UK is in the Schengen no-borders area, but because the British people will see the EU as inept in facing a major challenge.
But how did we get into this free for all? Schengen is breaking down because of the irresponsibility of a few leaders. Open borders within the Schengen area are only sustainable as long as its external borders are secured. But the open invitation extended by Angela Merkel – without consulting leaders of other EU countries – made that impossible and created an incentive for people to make the dangerous journey to European Union states, whether they were fleeing persecution or coming for economic reasons.
When the pressure on Germany became too severe, we saw attempts by the European Commission to impose a compulsory relocation scheme on countries that did not want it. Yet most migrants and refugees want to remain in Germany and, of the 160,000 people who were supposed to be relocated, only a couple of hundred have actually moved to date. The policy doesn’t work. Only after six Schengen countries reintroduced border check did Merkel and other EU leaders focus their efforts on securing its external borders. This is policy made by panic, not reason. The panic has led to the EU throwing money at Turkey, and dangling the false hope of EU membership before it, in the hope that we can outsource our problem to them.
But Germany is not solely to blame. Other EU countries – particularly Greece – have not been fulfilling their responsibilities within the Schengen system for several years. If they continue to wave people through then other member states have a responsibility to their voters to protect their national borders – as Hungary has done to much criticism. Greece has been offered help to secure its borders, but the offer has not been accepted. But rather than threatening to eject Greece from Schengen for not fulfilling its responsibilities, the EU instead proposes a border guard that could be sent in without a country’s permission. Whatever the problem, the solution is more Europe but less responsibility.
So here is where the EU needs fundamental reform. Rather than allowing some countries to get away with flouting rules and then responding with proposals for more centralisation, it is time to accept that a more flexible EU would better respond to the current crises. Countries that want to stay in Schengen should protect their borders. Likewise, countries that want to stay in the euro should follow the economic criteria put in place. And big countries should not be allowed to flout the rules while smaller countries are told to obey them.
This may put an end to the EUvangelists’ dream of a “United States of Europe” or “Federal Republic of Europe”, but continued irresponsibility and coercion will see the EU in 2016 repeat the failures of 2015. Instead, more flexibility, cooperation and responsibility would lead to an EU that does less, but that should deliver better results. Whether this reform can be delivered in time to convince us Brits to vote to stay in the EU remains to be seen.