A turning point for Europe

Europe has seen a surge in migration, mainly due to the  increased number of people from  Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who made the journey thorough Greece and the Balkans. This has led to political problems both within and between countries and has undermined  existing EU immigration agreements that are unlikely to survive in their current form.  If the  first approach to the problem was centered on how accommodate the influx of refugees then  the focus has shifted to stemming that flow and restricting entry.

 In order to address the huge migratory pressures, the European Commission sets out an agenda for an  European response, combining internal and external policies, trying to make  best use of EU agencies and tools, and involving all actors: EU countries and institutions, international organisations, civil society, local authorities and national partners outside the EU. The Commission's agenda focused on to management of the migration phenomenon in its main aspects: Investigating, disrupting and prosecuting smugglers networks and helping align EU countries' return practices, partly by strengthening  Frontex,  agency that helps border authorities from different EU countries to work together;  Building a  stronger partnerships with key countries outside the EU; Setting a revised proposal on smart borders, financing initiatives in North Africa to help the region become stronger in search and rescue activities, and seeing if a European border guard system should be established;  Ensuring a full and coherent implementation of the common European asylum system by promoting identification and fingerprinting, seeing how a single asylum decision process would ensure equal treatment of asylum seekers in Europe, and evaluating the Dublin system by mid-2016;  Reviewing the European work permit Blue Card scheme, re-prioritising integration policies, and making migration policy work better for countries of origin.

 Essentially the main  efforts  of the European Institutions were focused on the  implementation of two kinds of immigration policies to manage the crisis: some that aim to fairly distribute migrants across EU member states, and others intended to reduce the number of asylum seekers making their way to Europe, with controversial results. At  present there is not the agreement among the EU member states on a  common asylum policy and other measures proposed by the European Institutions,  like the enforcement of community-wide refuges quotas, the scrap of  the Dublin agreement on registering asylum seekers at the first port of entry and the creation of  EU border guards with the power to take control of national frontiers, have raised a deeply contentious. The  European Union response still seems far to find a single, comprehensive solution , with a growing confusion on how to tackle the hge flow of migrants and asylum seekers.The Dublin agreement, which stipulates that the member country of entry must fingerprint and take responsibility for new arrivals has been ignored many times. Tensions have cropped up across Europe between Germany and Austria, between Hungary and its neighbors as well as within the Balkans.  As result we have  a combination of poorly enforced EU decisions and unilateral measures by individual member states.

Having thrown open Germany’s borders in an act of humanitarian goodwill, Angela Merkel is struggling now  to cope with 1 million new refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, with an estimated, additional 1 million on their way this year, and to find a way to stem the flow. Berlin's original strategy had two parts: cooperate with Turkey to prevent migrants from entering the European Union and support Brussels' proposal to distribute asylum seekers across the EU countries. But so far, Turkey has not made any substantial moves to keep migrants from entering Europe and EU members have ignored the relocation plan. The  EU governments are still unable to agree on how to fund the €3bn bill offered to Turkey to accommodate there the asylum seekers from Syria and neighboring counties.  Agreement last October to share 160,000 asylum seekers across the EU from Greece and Italy has resulted to date in just over 300 being redistributed. The eastern Europe, and also other  countries,  wants nothing to do with refugee quotas.  An earlier agreement to resettle 22,000 directly from the Middle East is going nowhere.

 The failure of this strategy created friction within Germany's government and forced Berlin to tighten its migration rules. Germany decided to extend its border controls indefinitely and governments along the Balkan migration route introduces  similar measures. Austria plans for suspending Schengen and introducing  annual quotas of asylum applications. Sweden, the most generous in Europe on asylum, has already introduced stringent border controls. Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands were pushing for quick agreement on a new system of commission-proposed EU border guards empowered to overrule national governments in an emergency and take control of a country’s borders. Because Greece is the main point of entry for asylum seekers from the Middle East via Turkey, the border guards proposal is mainly aimed at Athens, which is the butt of much criticism. The measure is  highly contested  by Greece and other countries because it impinges on the sovereign rights of nations to be in charge of their territory.

 Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, whose country holds the EU presidency in the first half of 2016, said migration problems were pushing Europe to breaking point and to the collapse of the Schengen agreement on free movement of people, which underpins the EU single market.  But what is the answer?  It’s possible to define a common European migration policy even if the demographics of the EU member states are very different?  In some countries the population is set to rise substantially, meanwhile in others, like in Germany, Spain and Italy the population is set to fall substantially.  Also another main point to consider is that today’s migration issue isn’t primarily about economics. It is also about the ability and willingness of people, cultures and institutions to absorb large numbers of people from the outside, often with very different values, beliefs and traditions. The east Europeans  fundamentally reject all notions of importing west European multiculturalism to their societies via migration. But also in all the western European countries the political debate on the issue is quite controversial. The reaction to the events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of women were abused by men with asylum seekers and migrant backgrounds, has underscored how socially corrosive and politically divisive unstructured immigration can be. But at the same time no EU country can solve the problem alone slamming shut the doors.  Even with tougher migration rules in place at national level, enforcement will continue to be problematic. Syrians, who still make up the largest group of asylum seekers, are protected by international law and the hoping for a sudden end of war in Syria seems at present  unrealistic. Countries such as Germany have increased deportations in recent weeks, but only a small fraction of people whose asylum applications have been rejected are actually being ejected. Migrants who are expelled to Austria often return to Germany a few hours later. So while border controls, fences and tougher legislation will probably reduce the number of immigrants coming into Europe, they will by no means solve the problems.

So it’s clear that  coherent  and effective solutions  to the  asylum seekers and migratory pressures are still elusive both at  European and national level. But also there are no doubts that  remains  essential to find on the issue some common grounds  of action between the European Institutions and EU member states and inside the European civil society. It’s a turning point. The continuing  failure in finding an agreement on a common asylum policy and  on defining a European common  approach towards  the  massive wave of migration, linked  to the current crippled single market and chronic eurozone weakness, could destabilize the European Union and threaten the European project in its entirety.

CO.EUR. 12/01/2016