26 February 2016

EU at breaking point?

In all our years of monitoring EU developments, I don’t think anyone in the Open Europe office can remember an issue that has been so deeply divisive amongst EU leaders.  Recriminations and accusations are flying, and worst of all, the crisis shows no sign of abating. Though the root-causes of the crisis are not the EU’s fault, it has to be able to formulate some sort of response, and specifically, differentiate between those coming to Europe who are genuine refugees, and others who are not. As we’ve written elsewhere on this blog, the EU needs to start breaking down the parts of the ‘migration crisis,’ in order to formulate a policy response.

So how close are we to a European solution? The answer is that there is none in sight. As recap, let’s remind ourselves of what’s broadly been proposed:

  • Mandatory quotas to redistribute asylum seekers around the EU: The European Council agreed (through a Qualifed Majority Vote vote) last September that 160,000 asylum seekers would be relocated around the EU. A lot of political capital was burned, with the Central and Eastern European countries furious, and refusing to take part. Less than 500 people have been moved so far. The UK and Ireland do not have to take part in this scheme as they have an opt-out of EU asylum policy. (Ireland voluntarily opted in saying it will take 3,500 refugees, whilst the UK’s said it will take 20,000 Syrian refugees directly from the camps in the region by 2020.)
  • A deal with Turkey: The EU’s agreed a €3bn deal with Turkey in order to help keep more migrants in Turkey, and thus reduce the influx to Europe. There’s been a lot of squabbling over how much each EU member state should pay, but the commitments have finally been agreed. The cash has not yet been delivered, with concrete details yet to be ironed out. This has not been helped with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatening to send buses of migrants over the borders. The deal is sweetened for Turkey with a renewed commitment to talk about possible EU accession, and visa-liberalisation for Turkish citizens into the Schengen area.  EU leaders will hold an migration summit with Turkey next week.
  • Setting up “Hotspots”: Reception centres in Greece and Italy to register in-coming migrants, and in theory, to separate genuine refugees from economic migrants.  Five hotspots are now operational in Greece, where majority of new arrivals land via Turkey, and a few are also operational in Italy. Greece has been threatened with being kicked out of Schengen unless it gets the hotspots working quickly.
  • Beefing up the EU’s external borders: More funding for Frontex (the EU’s border agency) to patrol the EU’s external border. Talk of a pan-European border force to patrol the EU’s borders has been controversial as it crosses over into a national debate about sovereignty and control.  Recently, Germany, Turkey and Greece also recently asked NATO for assistance to gather intelligence in the Aegean Sea against people smugglers. A German-led NATO mission is currently patrolling the oceans, and has said that it will return any migrants it rescues to Turkey, rather than Greece.
  • Reform of Schengen and Dublin: The European Council of Interior Ministers yesterday agreed its position vis-a-vis the European Parliament to negotiate changes to upping security checks on EU citizens when they enter the Schengen area. (These checks were proposed in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.) Meanwhile, the proposed reforms of the Dublin system (whereby migrants can be returned to first point of entry into the EU) have yet to be tabled. (See here for our thoughts on Dublin.)
  • Humanitarian assistance for Syria and the region: An international conference to raise money for Syria and the region in London on 4th February, raised $11bn in pledges for humanitarian assistance for Syria and the region.

Quotas a no-go

It should come as no great surprise, but the redistribution quotas have gone down like a lead balloon. With only a few hundred refugees actually moved since the plan was agreed, the latest development came with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán telling the press on Wednesday that he will hold a referendum on the EU’s mandatory quotas, and would be encouraging other EU countries to follow suit. In an interview with Bild, he argued, “we cannot reach decisions over the heads of people that considerably affect their lives and those of future generations.”

Other European leaders have been just as vocal about their opposition to the migrant quotas. Slovakia’s filed a lawsuit, with Prime Minister Robert Fico calling them a “complete fiasco,” and the EU’s migration policies, “ritual suicide.” Other Central and Eastern European countries, and even Sweden, say they won’t have anything to do with the migrant quotas.

Austria’s the new bad boy

Austria’s following in the trail blazed by Orban – quickly becoming the new bad boy on the bloc – by taking the decision to cap the number of asylum applications in the country to 80 a day, and the number of asylum seekers it would receive in 2016 to 37,500. (Germany, Austria and Sweden are the countries that have seen the biggest influx of migrants and refugees by far.) Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann barely had time to talk about the ‘British Question,’ at last week’s EU leaders’ summit as he was busy defending Austria’s cap on asylum seekers, which both Germany and the European Commissions have said are illegal under EU and international law.

All the more interesting, then, that Austria decided to press ahead with a mini-migration summit with the Western Balkan countries in Vienna on Wednesday.  They agreed that they would take steps to dramatically “reduce the migrant influx.” Given that there is no “European solution in sight,” it is necessary to pursue “national solutions,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz.

Legal opinions will be answered by lawyers. Politically, we will stick to [the refugee cap].

Werner Faymann, Chancellor of Austria

Germany under fire

Relations have been on a steady decline with Germany and other EU member states on what the latter see as flaws in the former’s polices. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said this week, “Germany has to decide what signals [it] wants to send. Currently it’s allowing Greece to agree to the open-door policy, and on the other hand they are demanding that Austria stop all those who want to travel to Germany…We have to reduce the influx now. This is question of survival for the EU.”

Peter Altmaier, the Chief of Staff in the German Chancellery, hit back saying that Austria’s decision to cap asylum applications “could do more harm than good.” He added that Germany is “considering other options,” but in essence, Germany still prefers a ‘European solution.’ Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel has modified her views on how politically achievable a migrant relocation quota is (recently acknowledging to the Bundestag that they had become a ‘laughable’ idea), she is holding out for a concrete deal with Turkey, which she sees as the lynch-pin in her strategy to decrease numbers. Others are not convinced that Turkey’s Erdogan will deliver, with Victor Orban warning that “Europe’s future and security” cannot depend on the goodwill of Ankara, while also accusing Berlin of being “brusque, rude and aggressive.” He added, “The German refugee policy is not without alternatives.”

The German press was abuzz on Thursday with reports that the German government is expecting a total of 3.6m migrants until 2020 – including the 1.1m that arrived in 2015 – according to internal calculations from the Economic Ministry. The Ministry said that the assessment is “purely technical,” and that the Government will not give an official estimate as it would be impossible to predict.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s approval ratings have been on a steady downward trajectory, and the huge majority of Germans now feel that its government no longer has control of the situation. The German government expects that the crisis will cost the country at least €55bn until 2019, and the events in Cologne over New Year’s Eve have further soured the ‘refugees welcome,’ atmosphere which was prevalent in Germany in last summer. In addition, the German press reports today that 130,000 asylum seekers have “gone missing” in Germany. It’s a tinder-box waiting to explode, and this discontent should be evident in March’s regional elections in Germany, where the immigration-sceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), should sweep into regional parliaments in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt. They’re currently polling on 10%, 9% and 17% in each state respectively. The biggest loser in each state is Merkel’s CDU party.

We do not have the word ‘idiot’ written on our foreheads. We will be patient, but we will do what we have to.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish President

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The latest polls show that the immigration-sceptic AfD is set to make big wins in Germany regional elections in March. In Saxony-Anhalt, AfD is polling at 17%, whilst Merkel’s CDU is down by 5% to 30%.

Greece out in the cold?

Meanwhile Greece, which has been bearing the brunt of new arrivals, has been told that it needs to get its house in order, or face being kicked out of Schengen. The European Commission has given it a three month deadline (until March) to make good on promises of ensuring that the hotspots are operational. The looming prospect of being cut-loose led Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to momentarily wield a veto on the UK-EU deal in Brussels last week, unless he could have assurances that Greece would not be left alone on the migration crisis.

Tsipras  has also been adamant that he should have been at the Vienna-Balkan Summit on Wednesday, accusing Austria of “an attempt to take decisions in Greece’s absence that directly affect Greece and Greek borders.” Austria insisted, however, that the guestlist was closed, and went on to agree with the  Western Balkan countries that it would help Macedonia police its borders: a policy that is clearly aimed at closing the Balkan Route. But if controls are put in place on Greece’s Northern border, this could see a back-log of millions of migrants stranded in Greece in a new bottleneck. Thousands of refugees and migrants are already stranded in Greece after Macedonia tightened border restrictions last weekend, refusing Afghan nationals entry, while also tightening controls on Syrians and Iraqis.

So Tsipras has upped the ante again: warning parliament in Athens that he will not allow Greece to become, “a warehouse of souls,” and announcing that if Greece is left alone to deal with the crisis, he would block EU decisions at the next leaders’ summit in Brussels. The Greek government recalled its Ambassador to Austria for consultations yesterday. Meanwhile, a meeting of ministers in Brussels yesterday descended into chaos, with Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas telling press, “Greece will not accept becoming Europe’s Lebanon,” whilst Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said, “If it is really the case that the Greek external border cannot be protected, can it be still a Schengen [EU free-travel zone] external border?”

Is this the Demise of Schengen?

Earlier this week, Belgium became the seventh EU country to reinstate temporary border controls fearing an influx of migrants, after France announced that it would be clearing parts of the ‘Jungle,’ refugee and migrant camp in Calais. Others include Denmark, Norway, Germany, Sweden, France and Austria. Though such controls are permissible temporarily under the Schengen agreement, they look to stay put for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the numbers of people coming don’t seem significantly diminished. Fabrice Leggeri, the head of EU border agency Frontex, warned in Berlin on Wednesday that 140,000 migrants have already come to Europe in 2016. So while the monthly average has decreased since December 2015, the figures represent an increase of 600% from January 2015. Further talks on the reform of Schengen have yet to be finalised at the EU level.

The Schengen Borders Code provides Member States with the capability of temporarily reintroducing border control at the internal borders in the event that a serious threat to public policy or internal security has been established.

European Commission, DG Migration and Home Affairs

And how does this affect Britain?

Obviously the migration crisis could have quite a big impact on the UK’s EU Referendum debate. First, it’s a PR disaster for the EU. Leaders cannot find a comprehensive approach to the problem, have been fighting about it for months, and there is with no end in sight. And second, because issues are being conflated. The UK is not in Schengen, for example, and neither does it have to take part in the EU’s asylum policy. However, this is being mixed up in the debate with free movement and the right of EU workers to come to the UK. (See more on that here.)

So where to go from here? It’s not entirely clear if a common European solution will (or can) be found – but one thing is certain: with public trust in the EU and national government failing rapidly on this issue, it’s no wonder that leaders like Victor Orban and Werner Faymann are imposing unilateral national solutions.

Free movement and the migrant crisis should not be conflated