Members of International Organization for Migration (IOM) help a woman disembark from a Greek Coast Guard boat that rescued 48 refugees and migrants from Syria and Iraq that were stranded in the Aegean sea after trying to cross from Turkey to Greece in an inflatable dinghy on August 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS Image Credit: AFP

For many centuries, Europe was a continent plagued by wars, famines and poverty. Millions of Europeans were driven to emigrate by economic and social deprivation. They sailed across the Atlantic to North and South America and to places as far away as Australia, to escape misery and seek a better life for themselves and their children.

All of them were, in the parlance of the current immigration and refugee debate, “economic migrants”. During the 20th century, racial persecution, political oppression and the ravages of two World Wars became the predominant causes of flight.

Today, the European Union (EU) is one of the world’s richest economic regions. For decades, an overwhelming majority of Europeans have lived in peaceful democratic states that uphold their fundamental rights. Europe’s own misery and migration has become a distant (if not entirely forgotten) memory.

And yet, many Europeans feel threatened once again, not by Russia, which is aggressively pushing outward against its neighbours, but by refugees and immigrants — the poorest of the poor. While hundreds of boat people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this summer, voices have emerged in almost every corner of Europe, 26 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, calling for isolation, mass deportations, and the construction of new walls and fences. Throughout Europe, xenophobia and open racism are running rampant, and nationalist, even far-right parties are gaining ground.

At the same time, this is only the beginning of the crisis, because the conditions inciting people to flee their homelands will only worsen. And the EU, many of whose members have the world’s largest and best-equipped welfare systems, appears to be overwhelmed by it — politically, morally, and administratively.

This paralysis creates a significant risk for the EU. No one seriously believes that individual member states — particularly Italy and Greece, the two countries most affected — can overcome the long-term challenges posed by large-scale migration on their own. But many member states reject a common European effort, a stance that threatens to accelerate the erosion of solidarity within the EU and reinforce the current trend toward disintegration.

There are three distinct causes of the current migration to Europe: The Western Balkans’ continuing economic malaise; the turmoil in the greater Middle East; and Africa’s civil wars and conflicts. Intensification or expansion of the war in eastern Ukraine would quickly add a fourth cause of flight.

In other words, all of the migration that Europe currently faces is rooted in grave crises in its own neighbourhood. And yet the EU can do little to address any of them. Clearly, the EU must substantially strengthen its Common Foreign and Security Policy, including the European Neighbourhood Policy, in order to address more effectively the causes of migration at the source. Perhaps the only failure more glaring than the member states’ refusal to back such reforms is their own failure to act, not least because it has created a legitimacy vacuum that xenophobic populists are now filling.

Given its foreign-policy weakness, Europe can have only a minor impact on the wars and conflicts ravaging Africa and the Middle East (though its influence, however small, should be used and developed). The Western Balkans, however, is a different story. Croatia is already an EU member; Montenegro and Serbia have begun membership negotiations; Albania and Macedonia are accession candidates; and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates. Here, the EU has considerable influence.

Why the EU has not become more engaged in the Western Balkans — a region where it can make all the difference by supporting economic and administrative modernization and infrastructure projects to link the region to the Union’s industrial centres — remains the secret of the European Commission and the member states. The absurd result, however, is that citizens from EU candidate countries are subject to asylum procedures, because no possibility for legal immigration to the EU exists for them.

One special case is that of Roma, a large minority in the Western Balkans whose members often confront vicious discrimination. This is a pan-European problem. Roma suffered disproportionately after the collapse of Communism in 1989, as it worked largely in unskilled industrial jobs that were the first to be cut. Indeed, many of them — current or future European citizens — have fallen back into deep poverty. Continuing discrimination against them constitutes a Europe-wide scandal, and the EU, its member states, and candidate countries need to address it.

This summer’s refugee crisis highlights another — and much larger — structural problem in Europe: Demography. As European populations age and shrink, the continent urgently needs immigration. Yet, many in Europe strongly oppose immigration, because it also means social change.

In the long run, policymakers will have to explain to their people that they cannot have economic prosperity, a high level of social security, and a population in which pensioners place a growing burden on the economically active. Europe’s labour force must grow, which is just one reason why Europeans should stop treating migrants as a threat and start viewing them as an opportunity.

— Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2015

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.