Whether at the mini-summit, the EU Council, in the press, on social media, or even among citizens, discussions and debates surrounding the ongoing refugee crisis have been raging this past week. Despite the emergence of a vast ideological cleavage, neither side has been able to offer any plausible solutions.

On the one hand, we have the realists. They walk the corridors of power and are supported by a growing, through still relatively silent, rightwing movement demanding tighter border controls and seeking to shut the gates to prospective asylum seekers.

On the other hand, idealists are pleading loudly for refugees to be welcomed with open arms but are also unlikely to build a majority and arrive at any broad societal consensus. While I certainly applaud this movement’s moral courage, their proposals will not lead to sustainable solutions. Rather, in practical terms, this will only encourage more waves of refugees to seek European shores and precisely this trend would blow ever-greater gusts of wind into the open sails of the rightwing populists.

In our contemporary democratic systems, we need to be realistic enough to recognize that, at the very latest, this will backfire by the time the next election cycles come around.

Accordingly, we need a third way. And this, first of all, requires us Europeans to confront the inconvenient truth of our own responsibility in the matter. It is really not all too long ago that the countries where the majority of refugees are now departing from were subject to European colonial administration. In fact, the dismantling of the colonies and mandate states only began after the Second World War and only came to an end in the 1990s. Indeed, the ‘core’ European states, whether French, Belgian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Germans, Italians, British, even Luxembourgers, were all involved when the territories and resources of the former ‘third world’ were divided amongst them.

The enduring institutional legacy of this process has left us with a collection of weak, failed and, to a certain degree, collapsed states that still reflect the borders carved out by the colonial powers but do not actually have anything in common with local identities and social orders preceding the Europeans. Hence, when ethnic, cultural and linguistic divergences within states become just as conducive to conflict as tensions between states, the fact that these putative nations do not contain cohesive and integrated national societies and perpetually fail to conform to our governance norms is perhaps a logical consequence.

Then there is also the economic dimension. Across the Sahel, for example, newly drawn national borders as well as modernization in the European image superimposed a sedentary lifestyle on ancient nomadic tribes. Over the course of the past decades, the international community, operating under the IMF, World Bank and US Treasury’s ‘Washington Consensus’, implemented economic policies known for extreme forms of austerity, privatization and market liberalization – measures that we would never have accepted here at home. If we now also include climate change, which the industrialized North is mostly accountable for, then we cannot possibly act surprised when those less fortunate dare to cross the great Saharan desert and the Mediterranean in hopes of nibbling on the crumbs of the expansive cake that we baked using their resources.

Having settled the issue of responsibility, we can now move on to the related task of tackling the root causes of the problem. Until now, policy circles, and therefore society in general, have almost exclusively focused on the symptoms of the crisis. European external borders have been closed and secured. The European Trust Fund has been used to firm up African borders that we ourselves created in order to mitigate migration flows closer to the source. And development assistance funds are being used to shelter, feed and clothe refugees within Europe.

Don’t get me wrong, obviously we have a duty and obligation to offer assistance to those confronted by emergency situations; however, the true source of the problem lies much deeper! In particular, communities must be reconstructed from the ground up, thus beginning locally and close to the people. It’s a matter of creating a framework where deep-rooted questions concerning the monopoly of violence, socioeconomic relations as well as identity and legitimacy must be reassessed and reconsidered in an attempt to arrive at new and better answers. Perhaps borders must even be redrawn or erased – not by us Europeans but by local authorities themselves.

From the perspective of an increasingly global society, we must be prepared to assist and cooperate with our partners in this process but without necessarily falling back on traditional and established patterns of aid delivery. It’s not sufficient to inject more funds into national institutions and structures that have not – and will not – be able to live up to the challenges confronting us. We need an entirely different political, economic and social constellation for constituting societies and this necessitates engaging communities at the local level, while simultaneously operating within a broader regional framework. Accordingly, we need a development policy emphasizing territorial de-concentration and decentralization on the one hand and evermore regionalization on the other.

Only by following this trajectory will other parts of the world have a better chance of avoiding the logic of the nation-state system that arose in 19th century Europe – a system that has clearly not worked out for us. On the contrary, as we have intimately experienced, this model led to two tragic world wars!

*Research Associate

Changing Character of Conflict Platform

Pembroke College, University of Oxford