Migrant Crisis Challenges EU Open Border Policy
September 16, 2015
EU Home Affairs Ministers experienced yet another frustrating meeting on Monday, failing to agree on a full strategy to deal with the ongoing migrant crisis that increasingly is becoming a political stress-test for the European Union in addition to a humanitarian challenge. Underscoring that the crisis will not soon end, the European border agency Frontex announced today that more than 500,000 undocumented migrants crossed the external borders of the European Union between January and August. Although a large number of them may be counted twice (both when entering in Greece, and then again when entering into Hungary through Serbia), these figures are still significant in comparison with “only” 280,000 people in all of 2014.
Despite strong German-French coordination and leadership, a few member states – Central European for the most part – resisted endorsing the central proposal in the meeting, the European Commission’s plan to distribute across all EU member states 120,000 refugees who currently are located in a minority of EU countries. Ministers failed to agree on common conclusions, a usual practice in EU ministers’ meetings. As the rotating president of the EU Council of Ministers, Luxembourg therefore issued conclusions that it said were “supported by a large majority of delegations,” but those do not have legal force.
The European press was keen to call this another fiasco for European solidarity, and the European Union altogether. For sure, Monday’s meeting could hardly be labelled a success for the Europeans, but neither is it a complete failure. As often in Brussels, EU affairs are rarely black or white. It is rather a mix of political compromises, balance of power among member states, and the evolving role of the EU institutions.
Let’s focus on the (few) positives first. EU ministers did reach consensus on some aspects of the European Commission’s agenda, strongly endorsed by the Franco-German tandem. The ministers agreed to implement a plan to relocate 40,000 refugees (a.k.a. migrants in need of international protection), decided in June 2015 by EU heads of state. This purely voluntary mechanism will deal with refugees currently located in Italy and Greece. Participating member states will receive financial support from the European Union (€6,000 per relocated person).
Ministers also agreed in principle to install so-called “hotspots”, mostly in Italy and Greece, to increase the EU’s capacity to better identify and register migrants at their point of entry into the European Union. The main function of those hotspots would, in theory, be to register incoming migrants and try to identify those migrants who are in need of international protection – i.e. refugees – and those who do not qualify for this status – i.e. economic migrants, for the most part. The former could then proceed with asylum procedures in EU member states, while the latter would likely have to return to their countries of origin. A list of countries considered to be safe – enabling European states to return migrants quickly, thus allowing greater attention to those fleeing persecution – is yet to be finalized but certainly would not include Syria and Iraq.
Making such an arrangement work in Greece and Italy will require additional work in Brussels and help from EU institutions to run those centers. This is why EU ministers also agreed on the need to significantly increase the resources of the EU agency Frontex – though to an extent that still needs to be determined. Frontex should see its role reinforced in the near future, in particular in terms of assisting member states in monitoring their borders and helping them organize the return of irregular economic migrants.
Finally, the Council adopted on Monday a “positive assessment on the conditions to move the EU’s naval operation against human smugglers – EUNAVFOR Med – to the first step of phase 2.” Translated from EU bureaucratese, this means that the operation should quickly develop from its current role of only collecting of information and intelligence. A force generation conference and the approval of rules of engagement should enable the operation to move forward with its core mission, that is, to disrupt people-smuggling and trafficking networks on the high seas. France’s Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, revealed on Monday that 177 human smuggling networks, involving around 3,300 individuals, had so far been dismantled in France only, a 25 percent increase over 2014.
Unfortunately, reality on the ground isn’t slowing down to accommodate Brussels’ pace. Despite the limited but positive steps taken on Monday, time is working against the European Union and its member states on three fronts:
- First, there is a humanitarian urgency that member states may struggle to handle with only short-term measures. Mr Cazeneuve, underlined after Monday’s meeting that “each lost minute allows for additional human casualties.”
- Second, the more time passes without more comprehensive solutions being collectively agreed, the more difficult will it be for individual member states – even for Germany – to cope with the arrival of thousands of people every week, when not every day. This situation creates mixed feelings in European public opinions, some asking out of empathy their governments to do more, others wishing out of fear that the same governments would do less to avoid attracting even more migrants. Both attitudes are political realities that European governments have to deal with. With time, the split in European public opinion could make compromises more difficult to reach. Political forces playing on anti-migrant and far-right sentiment will seek increasingly to benefit from the situation.
- Finally, time is also working against Europe’s long-praised Schengen arrangements, after several EU member states – including Germany last weekend – recently reinstated selected controls at their national borders. While such controls, presented as temporary arrangements, are possible according to the letter of the Schengen agreement, they may considerably weaken its spirit and erode popular support if the European Union isn’t able to agree on a more ambitious plan quickly. The problem, at the end of the day, isn’t the existence of open borders within the Schengen area, rather the weakness of unified control at its external borders.
That brings us to the negatives from Monday’s meeting. The large majority of EU member states agreed on the more ambitious plan proposed by the European Commission to relocate an additional 120,000 refugees. This would have been in addition to the 40,000 already agreed on Monday, but this time on an obligatory basis. A relatively small number of EU members opposed the obligatory plan (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania) or showed significant skepticism (Poland and Latvia, for instance). Hungary is in a paradoxical situation: it remains highly skeptical about the idea of mandatory relocation – and it said so on Monday, but it would benefit from it in the short term, as about 50,000 out of those 120,000 refugees would be relocated from Hungary. Meanwhile, Budapest ended the construction of a fence at Hungary’s border with Serbia, the illegal crossing of which shall now be punished with a three-year jail penalty under Hungarian law. Already, Serbia’s foreign affairs minister complained about the closure of the border, a decision he called “unacceptable and unsustainable” today.
EU home affairs ministers are now supposed to meet again next week on September 22. In theory, the mandatory relocation mechanism does not require the unanimity of member states but could be adopted under qualified majority voting procedures. The six skeptical countries mentioned would not have sufficient voting weight to block a qualified majority if such a vote were forced in the coming weeks. But it would be very hard politically for the majority of member states to force a decision on this issue against the will of several EU countries. Sensitive political decisions are usually taken by consensus in the European Union. Therefore, forcing a vote here would send a terrible signal of disunity. More importantly, a decision would be very hard to implement without consensus – it is unclear how Brussels could force a member state to accept thousands of refugees against its will.
Next steps will likely include heavy political pressure on skeptical member states. Germany’s interior affairs minister, Thomas de Mazière, floated the idea of reducing the amount of structural funds they receive from the European Union. “We have to talk about means of pressure,” he said, quickly after Monday’s meeting. It would be difficult to institute such penalties, for which the legal basis doesn’t exist. Still, many in the EU’s older member states are frustrated by the perceived absence of solidarity shown by some of the newer EU partners, despite the hundreds of billions invested into their modernization by the European Union prior and after its enlargement to the East. This is especially true against the backdrop of the strong economic sanctions adopted unanimously by EU members against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, an issue especially important to many eastern European EU members. These critics have a point, since EU membership cannot be only about receiving structural funds from the European Commission without sharing a common sense of responsibility and solidarity in front of common challenges.
Despite all its willingness to be an ambitious – but also lately erratic – broker in the crisis, Germany is now keen to raise the profile of the debate. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, requested an extraordinary EU heads of state summit next week in Brussels. Her Slovakian counterpart, Robert Fico, immediately welcomed the proposal but stated his determination to oppose any decisions that would be “dictated” upon his country. The added value of convening a summit at this stage is uncertain, as Europeans risk exposing their divisions even more, considering the greater attention given to summit-level positions. Plus, decisions at this level require unanimity. A blocking minority is therefore much easier to sustain at the heads of state level, than at the ministers council one. A compromise might emerge to still convene a summit – focusing on the installation of hotspots centers and the best way to help countries of origin, including Turkey. Interior ministers would keep dealing with the relocation issue at their level.
The European Union is struggling to cope with one of the toughest challenges it has faced to date, and perhaps more significantly the toughest since its 2004 enlargement – potentially tougher even than the crisis in Ukraine – to which Europeans responded quickly and with unity – or the Greek economic crisis –most central and eastern member states aren’t Eurozone members yet. The ongoing debate risks dividing older and newer member states and takes place amidst widely divergent public opinion in EU member states. The situation is rapidly becoming a crucial test of European Union leaders’ – but also European societies’ – ability to devise and agree on a more structured response to a humanitarian crisis now quickly turning into an institutional one.
Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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