Migrants cross a bridge over the railway tracks of the Eurotunnel terminal on Tuesday in Calais

The European project has achieved many things but it has not abolished geography. This rich, orderly continent still has horrors ranged along its periphery, from Syria to the Maghreb and farther south in Africa. As long as a world of anguish abuts a zone of tranquillity, there will be movements of desperate people from one to the other.

Europe’s migrant problem, so evident in Calais and the shores of Italy, is born of vast forces: war, the failure of states and economies, the natural human craving for something better. Next to these forces, the response from European governments is petty and piecemeal.

Britain and France exchange blame for the Calais “jungle”, where people fleeing Eritrea and Syria live in shanty conditions while plotting their onward passage via lorry or train. David Cameron crudely described this flow of migrants as a “swarm” this week, but worse was the prime minister’s subsequent decision to send British sniffer dogs to fortify the channel crossing. This is the shallowest gesture politics, a ploy to keep the press sated for a few days.

If Mr Cameron lacks vision, so too does the European Union itself. The sharing of migrants across member states, the processing of asylum claims, the creation of legal routes into Europe — there should be pan-European co-ordination of this. Instead, there is a dog’s breakfast of national policies, some more enlightened than others.

Europe needs a sense of perspective, in two senses of the phrase. It should start by accepting that the inflow of migrants is not overwhelming. The EU has a population of around 500 million. Its citizens are entitled to expect secure borders but there should be no talk of a swarm when the Calais crisis involves only 5,000 newcomers. Turkey has absorbed almost 2 million, Lebanon 1.5 million. Europe’s burden is heavy but bearable, as long as it is shared beyond the pinch-points of littoral Italy and Greece.

The continent should also lift its sights and take the long view. Governments invest too much hope in technical fixes: a security measure here, a raid on people-traffickers there. The real problem is structural. As long as chaos reigns close to Europe, people will risk their lives to come here. The solution to the migrant problem lies at the source.

Nobody expects Brussels to bring peace to Syria or prosperity to the Horn of Africa. Nor can it offer the carrot of EU membership, which incentivised the former communist countries of eastern and central Europe to reform themselves.

But a giant trade bloc with so much diplomatic expertise to call upon has no excuse to be passive either. It has a direct interest in the security of North African ports and the economic prospects of the region, but it is a rare European leader who even talks about these challenges. Instead of squabbling over identity cards and policing techniques, France and Britain might reflect on their capacity as Europe’s foremost military powers to foster some semblance of order in the continent’s nearby troublespots.

Already prone to introspection, the euro crisis has made the EU turn in on itself in recent years. Previous efforts to look outward to the near abroad, such as the Mediterranean Union pursued by Nicolas Sarkozy during his French presidency in the last decade, have not been developed.

The EU has always talked a good game about soft power: the civilising influence of its peaceful, rules-based example. The plight of its neighbouring regions makes that talk look increasingly cheap.

Letter in response to this editorial:

Food and population inextricably linked / From Derek Coggrave

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