Josef Stalin allegedly once responded to warnings the Vatican wouldn’t like policy he was mulling over with the derisive snort, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”
The same question can be asked about the European Union. The EU, for all its solid institutional framework, its rowdy parliament and shiny buildings, has not a single soldier, airman, or ship. Instead of being able to take independent action, the EU must attempt to co-ordinate the foreign policy decisions of twenty-eight very different Member States. It’s not impossible, but it’s very, very hard.
But that’s no reason not to do it. Thousands of men, women and children have already died in the Mediterranean trying to cross from North Africa into Europe this year, and it’s not even May: it can be expected that this human tragedy will only get worse as we move into summer. It’s not as simple as saying they are trying to get to Italy, Greece or Malta. Rather, their goal is get to Europe. Quite simply, it is a European issue and it is the EU that must co-ordinate a response.
It’s a situation almost perfectly crafted for Brussels to drive policy forward. The countries of Southern Europe are clearly struggling to cope; the countries of Northern Europe must not be allowed to shrug their shoulders and glibly, wrongly, say it’s someone else’s problem – as they’ve previously been inclined to do. If a Europe-wide political organisation cannot chivvy its Member States into responding to the deaths of thousands of people in the seas off its coast, then you can legitimately begin to ask what even the point of this organisation is.
The cajoling, persuading and bullying will start at an emergency meeting of heads of government called for Thursday. This is a good first step by the relatively new President of the European Council, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has focused minds quickly. It is Member State governments who must give the lead, as only they have the resources to deal with the thousands trying to reach Europe. The gloom of the stuttering economy still hangs over Europe and many Member State governments – shamefully – believe that their populations will not tolerate money being spent on helping refugees, but such attitudes amongst men and women across the EU, even if they did exist, do not long survive images of the bodies of drowned children being hauled onto their coastline.
So there is reasonable expectation that Mr Tusk will be able to push Member States into more funding for better co-ordinated action. Following this, it is also time for the Commission to step up. Much will be expected from the Commission’s new foreign policy chief (or High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), Federica Mogherini, who has the virtue of being Italian. Like Mr Tusk she is also new to her job, but she does not have Mr Tusk’s previous European experience. In the short term, Ms Mogherini also needs to persuade, cajole and co-ordinate and it is a test of her abilities so early into her new role. In the longer term, it will be her job to design an EU policy that helps build the nations of North Africa into something resembling functioning states and so stop the flow of desperate refugees at source.
That all eyes will be on the EU to provide a lead seems a little unfair given the foreign policy constraints they operate under. Yet this is a chance for Mr Tusk, Ms Mogherini and their staffs to prove what the EU is for: not more or less EU, but about a better EU. And ultimately, it’s about stopping European authorities from having to repeatedly pull the corpses of men, women and children from their coastal waters. If the EU cannot help do this, then what’s the point of the EU?