Opinion: National egoism everywhere you look | Opinion | DW | 16.09.2015

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Opinion: National egoism everywhere you look

Thousands of refugees are crisscrossing Europe. The EU has no idea how to deal with it, and its members are divided. Europe isn't going to wake up to the situation until businesses suffer, says DW's Felix Steiner.

What is known today as the European Union was preceded by a number of different names. One of them was the EEC. But the second "E" in the acronym didn't stand for "ethical" as some today might suggest, but rather, the core of the term was economic. And what was true then is still true today: the EU is - above all - about economic interests.

The impetus for European unification was the desire of Germany's neighbors to control German economic redevelopment - an understandable wish coming as it did less than 10 years after the end of National Socialism. That's the time from which the supranational organizational form of the EU stems: What was previously the responsibility of individual nations would be handed over to what is today the European Commission.

The founding fathers' wishes have gone unfulfilled

At the time, optimists had hoped that the model's success would lead to nation states turning over more and more of their political responsibilities to the new international institution established in Brussels. But the reality has been far from it!

Felix Steiner

DW editor Felix Steiner

The reins of power are not actually held by the Commission, but by the European Council - the EU's body of national ministers, or - in important situations, national heads of state themselves. In such situations, leaders fight hard and haggle trivially.

"Shared values" are not of the essence of debate on this Council. The leaders, instead, are vying to promote their own national interests. That is how the EU has worked for decades. And it has worked quite successfully: Western Europe has not experienced war within its borders for more than 70 years, and it has created a zone of incomparable wealth.

Collective political failure

Germany has often made such compromises possible by paying more than other member states. But in the end, that has been about national ego as well: Germany's exports, the backbone of its economy, rely on a well-functioning Europe. Europe's demise would be even more expensive than the added costs of keeping it up and running.

To this day, each member state carefully watches to ensure it does not forfeit too much power to Brussels. A common EU foreign and security policy? Nothing that the EU has done deserves such a name. That is why the current refugee crisis is neither coincidence, nor fate - instead it is an expression of shared political failure.

A pre-programmed crisis

The European Union could have prevented a large portion of today's flood of refugees. Countries could have, for instance, heeded the UNHCR's calls for help for refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey in a timely fashion. Those camps could no longer provide schooling for refugee children, and now they cannot even provide enough food for the people living there. Who can be surprised by the fact that thousands of refugees have decided to leave the camps in hopes of reaching Europe? At the time, the argument was that it would have cost too much money. But what's happening now will cost exponentially more!

And - as if nobody had figured out what is actually happening - everyone keeps doing their own national thing: Greece and Italy wave people through, Hungary builds walls, eastern Europe looks the other way, and Angela Merkel simply invites all Syrians to Germany without conferring with anyone ahead of time - yet she still wants to spread the burden around and has been forced into partial capitulation after just a week as the burden defies all comprehension. In the meantime, ministers in Brussels can't even agree on the distribution of 160,000 people - even though far more than that have already arrived. Also, no one has control of the situation, no one knows who these people are, where they are from or where they are going. Politics as the power to shape is currently nonexistent in Europe.

Schengen will die next

Where will it all end? Nobody knows, because nobody has a plan. The Dublin agreement is long dead. Schengen will be the next to go. Who wants to keep refugees in a country where they don't want to stay? Will one of Europe's founding principles die off as well? Freedom of movement is fine and well, but a good life was possible before Schengen. More than anything, border controls will dramatically increase the price of shipping goods. When economic numbers are in danger then maybe something will finally be done.

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