Which is more significant, Brexit or the migration crisis?

Which is more significant, Brexit or the migration crisis?

A spectre is haunting Europe, once again nowadays - the spectre of who is calling the shots in the old continent. The epic struggle between European capitals and Brussels is approaching a critical juncture. Like so many times in European history, Turkey’s stance will be critical in deciding the fate of the continent.

Consider the two major issues at hand: Brexit and the refugee crisis. Which one do you think is more significant for the European Union? I see both as the two sides of the same coin. Both boil down to who is internal power dynamics in the old continent. It seems like, just before this summer, the fate of the liberal EU as we know it, will be decided. 

There are two important dates here. On March 7, 2016, we will have the EU-Turkey Summit on Migration in Brussels. On June 23, 2016, British voters will decide on whether or not to stay in the EU. One way or another, Europe will be going down a new path this summer. 

There is a feeling that Brexit might harm the EU. I’m not so sure. Brexit is about whether London is willing to keep conceding authority to Brussels, or whether it wants to hold all the reigns. I find the latest Paul de Grauwe note on this rather illuminating. If Britain stays in the EU, says the renowned LSE professor, things will not stop there. Right the next day, he argues, the Brexit-camp will shift its strategy to achieve the objective of returning power to Westminster by pursuing a structural change in Brussels from a majority-rule system to an intergovernmental one. Grauwe says that this would be a Trojan horse, deconstructing the EU as we know it from within. It would minimize the impact of  “l’acquis communautaire” and transfer power back to national parliaments. 

But for another test of cohesion, look no further than the migration crisis. Last year, Europe had around 1 million illegal migrants, most of whom reached the Schengen zone by crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. Europe has had difficulty in coping with the crisis so far. 

Turkey has offered to work harder to prevent Syrians within its borders from migrating to Europe, if the Europeans are willing to pay for their stay. In time, Syrian migration to Europe would under this scheme be regulated, with all countries sharing the burden. Brussels and Merkel are on board, while many Eastern Europeans and far-right groups are opposed to even that notion. This whole discussion is also – not surprisingly – about who is calling the shots in Europe. National capitals vs. Brussels, Hungary’s Viktor Orban vs. Germany’s Angela Merkel. And lo, even mighty Merkel is losing. The EU scheme for voluntary relocation of Syrian migrants is failing, and with it EU unity and solidarity. 

There is no love lost between Ankara and Brussels, and the current government is right to drive a hard bargain. But eventually, it should stop seeing the issue as one between Turkey and the EU, and position itself in the discussion within the Union. When in Brussels, does Ankara stand with the Victor Orbans, or the Angela Merkels? The cohesion of Europe could well depend on the answer to that question.