Luxembourg has played a key role in Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, having held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union for the final six months of 2015. Luxembourg was also the first country to accept asylum-seekers from Greece under the E.U.’s plan to distribute people more evenly across Europe, using a quota system.

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, sat down for an interview with Washington Post London Bureau Chief Griff Witte at Bettel’s office in Luxembourg City on Jan. 6. The following are excerpts of their conversation:

Washington Post: Your foreign minister has been quoted as saying that he believes the E.U. has failed in its effort to deal with [the refugee crisis], and if it doesn't get its act together, the E.U. itself could be at risk of collapse. Do you agree with that assessment?

Xavier Bettel: We can't say that nothing has been done. It's important to say that since the beginning of the crisis, Europe was able to reinforce Frontex, to create the hot spots, to work on a common list of safe countries. It's a fact that it takes long, but we advance. When you are 28 around a table, it's more difficult than when you are two. But we need common rules.

WP: Why is it that that number [of asylum-seekers who have been relocated] is so low? This is a program that has been discussed for eight months now, it was agreed in September, and everyone sees it as an important part of not only dealing with this crisis but showing that Europe can work together in a cooperative fashion. And yet, 272 out of 160,000, that's an unbelievably low number.

XB: Thirty were in Luxembourg. So we did our work. It's important to know that we did what we had to do.  But I would be happy if other countries did what they had to do. One of the reasons [the overall number is low] is that we cannot force someone to leave. If he is in a hot spot or somewhere and you tell him ‘You have to go there,’ and he doesn't know where and how and with whom, no contacts and things like that, maybe he doesn't want to go. Resettlement and relocation should be the rule: People have to be registered and fingerprinted at their arrival before they are relocated to another country.

WP: What do you see as the main barrier to cooperation on the refugee issue?

XB: The fact is, no one was prepared for the situation we had. And we saw also the reactions in some of the countries, where extreme right parties became popular. But do we believe in the values Europe was built on? Do we believe in these values of solidarity, of this peace project? I would just urge democratic parties and traditional parties not to answer the calls of populism, which is the easy solution, to blame someone.

WP: And yet, all across the continent, you see walls going up. In Sweden and Denmark just this week, you have border controls for the first time in 50 years. How concerned are you that Schengen could be dying as a result of this crisis?

XB: National solutions are bad solutions. Only a European solution is a good solution.

WP: But it seems like the direction of travel is the other way. It’s towards national solutions, and less cooperation.

XB: If we have 28 different regulations with 28 new borders and walls, it's not the Europe I want. We need to find common solutions. We need to do what we say, and to say to the people what we want to do. Because as long as they have questions and we are not able to give answers, they will be afraid.

WP: The numbers of people who are traveling to Europe have subsided for the winter but the numbers who are arriving in Greece are still 11 times what they were receiving this time last year. Is there reason to think that these flows are going to be any lower in the spring than they were this past fall?

XB: If we are not able to find a solution in Syria, if we are not able to find solutions with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, if we aren't able to find a solution with hot spots in Greece and Italy, if we are not able to find a solution for the protection of our external borders, if we are not able to find a common position about Frontex, if we are not able to find common solutions about safe countries, the situation in the spring could be worse than it was before the winter. We haven't had the flow of refugees that we have now since the Second World War. If we are not able to able to manage this, it will be a big failure for all of us.

WP: And what are the consequences of that failure?

XB: I still believe that we will be able to do it, that we've taken the right decisions. We were able to go in the right direction and we have to continue in that direction.

WP: Do you understand why a refugee would say, ‘I don't want to go to Luxembourg, I want to go to Germany’ or ‘I want to go to Sweden’ and should that be respected? Or should the refugee be told, look, Luxembourg is a perfectly fine country, go there?

XB: It's not shopping time. It's on us to decide where people are able to get decent situations to live, and not on them to decide where they want to go.

WP: There is clearly a significant backlash against refugees. Part of that is being fueled by the fact that Europe was completely unprepared for this crisis. Given what we know now, did [German Chancellor Angela Merkel] make a mistake in signally to refugees, come here, the doors are open?

XB: No, it was not a mistake to say it. It was not a mistake to say that if there are people trying to survive, Europe is a place where they have an opportunity to have a future. But it's a reality that there are limits. We had the situation before Angela's speech. When there are three people on the border we are able to manage it. If there are thousands we are not able and we need common rules.

WP: [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban was widely condemned when he made many of his comments [last] year, but in retrospect, did he have a point?

XB: We should never forget our history. Some of us were refugees yesterday, and to say we don't want to have any, that now internal borders are the solutions because external borders are not working, that would be the proof that Schengen is not working any more.