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Migrant crisis creates test for idea of borderless Europe

An ongoing migrant crisis that many are calling Europe's worst since World War II is unlikely to impede the continent's trade in the short term, but it's presenting an unexpected challenge to the European vision of a borderless economic bloc.

Europe found itself the sought-after destination for more than 300,000 refuge-seekers in the January-July period alone, according to Frontex, the EU's border control agency. The vast majority of those civilians are seeking refuge from deadly social upheaval in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere. The number of migrants in the same period last year was 123,500, the agency said.

Migrants protest at the railway station in the town of Bicske, Hungary, September 3, 2015.
Bernadett Szabo | Reuters
Migrants protest at the railway station in the town of Bicske, Hungary, September 3, 2015.

The sheer volume of people seeking asylum on the continent has created something of an existential crisis for the European Union. The politico-economic bloc of 28 member states relies on the concept of open borders among its members, which allows for the freer passage of goods and services. But the current crisis has put pressure on that critical concept as each nation weighs whether to allow migrants to stay and under what status.

As the crisis escalates, so does tension on European Union member states' borders. This week, Hungary stopped all trains from proceeding to Western Europe from its Keleti station, most migrants' last stop in Hungary before heading on to Austria and Germany. Police in Vienna on Wednesday freed 24 Afghan migrants who were found near suffocation in a locked van, following the death last week of 71 in a separate truck found in Austria.

Meanwhile, European Union countries with external borders, such Greece and Italy, have called for a more equitable system for distributing incoming refugees and asked for help from other member states in managing them.

So far this year, more than 70 percent of global migrant deaths have taken place in the Mediterranean region, according to the International Organization for Migration. According to the organization, there have been 2,643 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea as of Aug. 31. That is already more than 70 percent of the total number of deaths in the region for all of 2014.

Much-needed policy change

Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, sees no immediate impact on trade in Europe, but he said he does think that rising political pressure from some member states like Greece and Italy could force policy changes at the EU level.

"The growing pressure from some states will be a decisive element in this," he said. "This is a good basis to change the system, and it will probably come in small steps."

A central issue facing the European Union is that is there is no cohesive policy on how to deal with asylum seekers. The lack of a common system has also been compounded by the de facto principle that has been in place since 2003—namely, that refugees may apply for asylum only in the country where they land. That places most of the burden on Greece, Italy and to a lesser extent Spain.

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Janning said the EU will first have to agree on a standard definition on who is eligible for political asylum, and then streamline the process for all member states. "It will probably be an upscaling of the instruments the EU provides member states on how to implement asylum protocol," he said.

"Because there is no common definition, there are too many people being entered into the asylum system," he said, "which means that those who really need it, most of them from Syria, are getting stuck in the pipeline."

Progress on a policy change will most likely come over the course of the year, he added.

"To have a single market and enjoy an open space does have policy implications," he said. "There needs to be a common understanding how people will migrate into your societies."

Hoping to cross into Hungary, migrants walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, September 2, 2015.
Marko Djurica | Reuters
Hoping to cross into Hungary, migrants walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, September 2, 2015.

The ongoing dilemma marks another political test for collective action in Europe. Over the course of Greece's debt struggles, for instance, leaders from euro zone nations have often pushed for policies based on domestic political priorities rather than focusing on the monetary union at large.

Michael Geary, global fellow at the Wilson Center and professor at Maastricht University, said that coming to a policy agreement will be much more easily said than done for the EU.

"One tends to forget the European Union is not a homogeneous union," he said. "There are areas that expose the fact that the European Union is not the United States of Europe: We don't have a common policy, and we will disagree."

"It's not surprising, but it just doesn't look good—it's quite unsavory to talk about these policies while people are dying in the Mediterranean," he said. "But it's the nature of the beast."

—CNBC's Everett Rosenfeld contributed to this report.