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The EU's refugee crisis summit: a basic guide

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  • An emergency European Union summit on the refugee crisis ended in disappointment Monday after EU interior ministers were unable to agree on a response to the refugee crisis. EU officials agreed that a total of 160,000 refugees should be distributed across the EU for resettlement, but they failed to reach a final decision on the more important issue of how many refugees each country should take.
  • The refugee crisis is the worst that Europe has experienced since World War II, with hundreds of thousands of people arriving at Europe's borders so far this year. An estimated 2,800 people have died trying to reach Europe, including many children.
  • The failure to reach a solution to the crisis has left EU border states overwhelmed and refugees in limbo. This situation has tested Europe's ability to function at times of crisis — and so far, it is failing that test.

EU member states agree that 160,000 refugees should be resettled across Europe – but can't agree on how that should happen

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Refugees on the Hungarian-Serbian border. (Thomas Campean /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

"We have not reached a decision on quotas and details of relocation," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced after the EU emergency meeting in Brussels. He sounded disappointed, and he had every reason to be.

On Monday, a meeting of 28 EU countries produced little more than a vague agreement that 160,000 refugees ought to be redistributed across Europe. That's fine as far as it goes — but it doesn't go very far. Recent history shows that without a binding quota system, redistribution won't happen. In other words, instead of coming up with an effective, binding solution to the refugee crisis, EU nations have simply expanded the existing ineffective solution to cover many more people.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had proposed a system in which each member state would have a mandatory resettlement quota that would be set based on a formula that takes into account each country's GDP, unemployment rate, population, and the number of asylum applications the country received in the first half of the decade. But that proposal failed. The EU will take up the mandatory quotas again next month instead. "An EU meeting on October 8 will have to bring the regulations concerned with itself," de Maizière said. "This is a first, important step. But the truth lies in the execution and implementation."

The EU's failure to find a solution to the crisis threatens its own legitimacy

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Police register refugees at a train station in Freilassing, Germany. (Sebastian Widmann/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The refugee crisis — and, by extension, Monday's summit — tests the EU's ability to solve EU problems at the EU level, rather than treating them as issues for individual countries to deal with on their own.

The real issue here is whether, when the existence of the EU creates burdens for some countries even as it creates benefits for others, the EU will address that problem collectively, or whether it will leave weaker countries to struggle alone — or whether it will try to ignore the problem in the hope that Germany will solve it by itself.

If that question sounds familiar, it should: The Greek financial crisis raised many of the same issues earlier this summer. In that case, the problem was the way the EU's common currency burdened Greece and other small economies. In the case of the refugee crisis, the problem is that the EU's open borders and common labor market mean refugees are often traveling to "Europe," rather than to an individual member state — but EU rules still treat refugees as a matter for individual member states to handle on their own. It is as if the US had treated last year's child migrant crisis as a matter for Arizona and Texas to solve by themselves, simply because that was where most of the children crossed the border into the US.

The EU finally reached a solution to the financial crisis last summer, but a solution for the refugee crisis looks far less certain. That threatens core principles of the EU — especially its open internal borders.

Over the weekend, for instance, Germany, which has taken a moral and political leadership role in the crisis in recent weeks, closed its border with Austria, citing "urgent security reasons." The move seems to have been intended to send a message to other EU countries that Germany is not willing to solve this crisis on its own, and to put the pressure on to find an EU-wide solution at Monday's summit.

But instead, Germany's move triggered a domino effect, prompting other EU nations to impose checks at their own frontiers as thousands of refugees pressed north and west across the continent. Johanna Mikl-Leitner, Austria's interior minister, said Monday that her country would "act like Germany" and establish new controls on its own borders. Slovakia said it would now impose controls on its borders with Hungary and Austria. The Netherlands announced it would make spot checks at its borders. Other EU countries, ranging from Sweden to Poland, said they were monitoring the situation to decide whether controls were needed.

Europe's refugees desperately need a solution to the crisis

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Refugees crossing the border between Hungary and Serbia. (Thomas Campean /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Of course, this is not merely a political crisis for the EU. It is also a humanitarian crisis for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants who have been left in legal limbo and physically perilous conditions while the EU struggles to reach a solution.

In Greece, for instance, the thousands of arriving refugees have been stuffed into squalid, underresourced camps. Earlier this summer, Doctors Without Borders' Stathis Kyroussis described the current refugee crisis in Greece as the worst he has ever seen: "I have worked in many refugee camps before, in Yemen, Malawi, and Angola. But here on the island of Kos, this is the first time in my life that I have seen people so totally abandoned." According to Human Rights Watch, the Greek reception centers where arriving refugees are held lack sufficient food and health care, and are so severely unsanitary and chronically overcrowded that the conditions in them may amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.

Conditions are even worse in Hungary. There, the government has herded refugees into metal holding pens that would be more appropriate for livestock than for people. In one such detention center, Röszke, detainees "are held in filthy, overcrowded conditions, hungry, and lacking medical care," said Human Rights Watch's Peter Bouckaert, who is currently in Hungary. Last week, a leaked video showed Röszke guards hurling food packets at desperate refugees, many of whom were children.

Until the EU finds a solution to the crisis, those refugees will be left in perilous limbo.