The Refugee Crisis

Neither member states – nor the EU – can re-establish control over the situation without collaboration with countries in the Middle East and in Africa.

This week in Brussels is the occasion for “State of the Union” speeches. European Council President Tusk delivered his at the Bruegel Annual Dinner on Monday, Wednesday President Juncker followed with an address to the European Parliament and the week was concluded with former European Council President Van Rompuy’s contribution at European Policy Center. All centered on one common theme – the refugee crisis. This has become the number one challenge to the European Union. Failure to address it properly will have grave consequences for the whole European construction.

Most attention has focused on the Commission’s proposal for a compulsory refugee distribution scheme to share the burden of the most affected member states: Greece, Italy and Hungary. And rightly so – the present system based on the Dublin Convention that puts the entire burden on the first country of arrival in Europa is unsustainable when a country like Greece in August alone received 100,000 immigrants. The present Dublin system cannot survive unless a redistribution mechanism is included – and if Dublin goes by the wayside, Schengen will be the next victim (as permanent national borders are reinstated).

One can only hope that member states will react more responsibly now than they did when first confronted with a similar proposal in May on the redistribution of a modest 40,000 people. The haggling between member states was not a pretty sight. Only Germany and Sweden – besides Greece and Italy – wholeheartedly supported the proposed scheme. Member states in Central and Eastern Europe were only prepared to accept a token number, forgetting the Cold War experience of massive flight of people from their own countries to the West in search of protection from persecution and political oppression. The UK and Denmark stood aside, referring to their opt-outs from the Union’s immigration and asylum policies. They could have participated through voluntary agreement if the necessary political will had existed: This was proved by Ireland that decided – despite its opt out – to participate in the joint effort.

However, a fairer burden-sharing does not alone solve the problem. Europe needs to take responsibility for more refugees. In a world with 60 million refugees – mainly in areas close to Europe – we cannot credibly pretend that it is only possible to take one per thousand, as we do now.  At the same time, it is unrealistic to assume that a large number of EU countries will be prepared to copy the current German and Swedish generosity – nor that these two states will remain unaffected in years to come from the political difficulties on immigration that other states are experiencing.

The inflow of illegal immigrants that are not victims of persecution in their home countries has to end. Europe cannot – all at the same time – cope with a refugee crisis and welcome economic migrants in search of a better life. Basic changes are needed in various areas, like stopping Illegal immigration from the Balkan states – future members of the EU –by placing them, as proposed by the Commission, in the category of safe third countries.

Even more should be done to control our external borders and stop the traffic of ‘boat people’ across the Mediterranean. The EU is in now rolling out a naval mission (“Euronafor”) in order to destroy the traffickers’ boats and supply lines. Do not expect spectacular results from this effort, as long as the EU fleet cannot operate close to the Libyan coast, due to the internal chaos in that country – a failed state.

It is more difficult to understand that not more is being done to stop the flow from Turkey to Greece and the Balkans. Turkey is no failed state. It is probably wise – as announced by Tusk in his Bruegel speech – to reach out to the country as he will do during a visit to Ankara shortly. To convince Turkey to assist in stopping the traffic will require concessions – and not only in financial terms. Turkey is right to expect much greater solidarity in sustaining the cost of hosting two million refugees. But Turkey could also insist that the EU takes over at least a small number of refugees from their refugee camps, to be shared among its member states.

Many talk about establishing reception centres outside Europe – in the Middle East and Northern Africa – where asylum seekers can stay, while their demands for EU refugee status are being examined. It is, however, difficult to see how relevant countries would cooperate unless assured that that Europe in the end is prepared to take – and assure a distribution among member states – refugees in genuine need of protection.

A permanent allocation mechanism between member states could also help promote an effective return policy for immigrants who do not obtain refugee status in Europe. This is at the top of the agenda of an upcoming summit with relevant African countries in Malta in November. Some EU states – in particular Italy and Spain – have in the past concluded effective agreements with Mediterranean countries, ensuring joint efforts to block boats of refugees leaving and a rapid return of those that nevertheless succeed in reaching Europe. The counterpart has been economic assistance and a certain number of legal immigration possibilities.

The EU should learn from these experiences. It is therefore timely that the Commission intends to look into the opening of legal channels of migration in early 2016, as announced by Juncker in his speech.

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