European Policy Failure during the Refugee Crisis: Partial Empowerment, Reluctant Agents, a Cacophony of Voices, and Unilateral Action

Eugénia C. Heldt

EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2018/36, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies


The author seeks to explain the EU’s policy failure during the refugee crisis, attributing it to four causes. First, a partial empowerment of supranational institutions on migration and asylum policy without clearly defined competences between the Council of the EU and the European Commission hindered effective and rapid action by Frontex and the European Asylum Support Service (EASO), the agencies in charge of refugees and mass migration issues. Second, the European Commission took a low profile by acting reluctantly during the refugee crisis and was therefore unable to take a transformational leadership role. Third, the inability of EU Member States to speak with a single voice impacted their external and internal effectiveness in solving the refugee crisis. Finally, this “cacophony of voices” led to unilateral action, culminating in the temporary suspension of the Schengen system, with several Member States closing their borders, and eroding the authority of the Commission. The author concludes that “the mantra that the EU undergoes many crises but always emerges stronger has lost plausibility”.