The chaos of 2015, when more than a million refugees came to the European Union within a year, caused lasting fractures between and within the bloc’s countries. Now growing numbers of migrants are once again crossing into the EU from Turkey.

It’s too early to tell whether this mounting crisis could become another “2015.” But it’s already clear that it’s blowback for the EU’s utter failure to reform its migration system in the past five years — a failure that leaves it open to blackmail by cynical autocrats like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Though nominally a NATO ally and applicant to join the EU, Turkey is increasingly becoming a geopolitical threat to the West. Erdogan is waging a war in Syria for which he wants European support, even as his onslaught swells the huddled masses trying to escape the hell of Idlib. To put pressure on the EU, Erdogan is actively shooing more of the roughly 4 million refugees in Turkey toward Europe. That directly contravenes a deal Turkey and the EU made in 2016, when Erdogan, in return for lots of European money, promised to prevent migrants from crossing to Greece and to take back any who did. 

As a result, refugees are again paddling in dinghies to Greek islands, then crowding into overfilled and filthy camps. They’re also — and this is new — trudging by land to Turkey’s Thracian borders with Greece and Bulgaria, where, at least for now, they’re stopped by tear gas and barbed wire. It’s hard to say exactly how many tens of thousands they are. But for the EU it’s another potential catastrophe all the same.

If Greece stays firm, throngs of human beings will suffer in limbo between the borders, and many will get sick and even die. The EU, in contrast to leaders like Erdogan who understand only the callous rules of realpolitik, cannot afford to allow such a humanitarian catastrophe. If it sacrifices its values, it also forfeits its raison d’etre.

If, however, the EU allows the migrants to enter, that will create even bigger problems. As soon as word gets out that the borders are “open,” more people will set off on their journey, not only from Syria but also from Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The rush of migrants would be another gift to populists, who tend to be both xenophobic and euroskeptic. A new refugee crisis would mean more populists in more countries trying more brazenly to undermine the EU from within.

Such a dilemma could have been foreseen since 2015, when the backlash against the refugees almost toppled Angela Merkel as German chancellor. That makes EU leaders’ failure to prepare for a new crisis all the more glaring. It defies comprehension that the union today still has the same flawed migrant regime that broke down so spectacularly in 2015.

Called the Dublin System, it requires migrants to apply for asylum only in the first EU member state they physically enter, which usually means Greece, Italy or Spain. In effect, the system leaves those frontier states to cope — or not cope — on their own, even though most migrants plan to move on to northern countries. Overwhelmed, Greece just suspended its processing of asylum applications for a month. The system is both dysfunctional and unfair.

After the previous migrant emergency, Germany and a few other countries tried to reform the system. In that plan, the EU as a whole would have allocated refugees among all member states according to their economic strength and population size. But welcoming even relatively few foreigners, especially Muslims, was anathema to nationalist governments like Hungary and Poland, which willfully balked at all attempts at reform.

It was a mistake for the EU to let these nay-sayers get away with their obstruction. But the EU should now move on without them to a new approach that works. People like Gerald Knaus, the architect of the 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey, think that a group of countries led by Germany, France and Italy should forge ahead and resettle new arrivals among them, even if other member states refuse to share the burden. This would relieve frontier states like Greece.

Crucially, this new system must avoid creating a new “pull effect” by assuring swift and certain deportation of economic migrants who don’t qualify for asylum. The EU must signal that illegal migration isn’t worth the hazardous journey, and simultaneously offer a legal path, with more visas and work permits for qualified workers, for example.

To get the home countries of economic migrants, from Africa to Afghanistan, to cooperate, the EU should unapologetically use policy sticks and carrots. Participating nations, for example, could get better terms of trade, investment and aid depending on their readiness to repatriate their own migrants from Europe.

It goes without saying that this is a huge and complex undertaking. But the EU has had five years to get started, and has little to show for it. Its inaction has left it at the mercy of events like wars and famines, and actors like Erdogan, that are outside its control. A confederation that can’t control its own borders and can’t inspire cohesion among its members has no credibility and will eventually collapse. If the EU wants to avoid that fate, it had better get busy right now.

To contact the author of this story: Andreas Kluth at akluth1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Melissa Pozsgay at mpozsgay@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.

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