On the 28th and 29th of June, the EU heads of government met in Brussels to address their responses to the latest trade tensions, external migration, and security issues affecting the bloc. The agenda was dominated by the political strains facing Chancellor Merkel and her coalition partner – the Bavarian Christian Social Union, CSU party. Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU and interior minister, had given her an ultimatum to reform Europe’s migration issues and policies – or he would order the closure of Germany’ borders with Austria and Italy to asylum seekers. Seehofer’s defiant approach clearly put Angela Merkel’s long tenure as Chancellor at stake. Few doubt that it had been her decision in 2015 to admit over a million refugees which helped fuel the current crisis. For their part the CSU had little choice in pursuing a strong line on migrant admissions, having lost vital ground to the anti-immigration AfD – Alternative for Germany – party in the 2017 General election.
But by the morning of the 29th June, a compromise agreement of sorts had averted the collapse of Merkel’s coalition. This was not the most decisive outcome as no details were announced and the controversial issue of refugee quotas was carefully avoided. Yet it was enough to receive the endorsement of the CSU whose spokesperson stated that “something has moved in the right direction”. Italy’s new populist government claimed a degree of satisfaction for the proposal that in future, rescued migrants would be sent to Euro-wide “controlled centres” – an idea first proposed by France and Spain, but then only on a voluntary basis – to accommodate the hostility of populist governments to any Brussels imposed compulsory arrangements.
Guiseppe Conte, Italy’s Prime Minister of its new populist coalition returned home clutching a hastily drawn up plan to manage the boatloads of refugees from Libya and North Africa. Even Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and fierce critic of years of mass migration, believed some “real progress” had been made. Support for Merkel also came from an unlikely quarter: Premier Alexis Tsipras, who had just rehabilitated Greece into the Eurozone family with the end of its bailout programme. Along with Spain, he was the first to agree to accept the return of refugees now in Germany for registration in Greece as the country of first entry. Refugees seeking asylum had in recent years entered Greece through the Greek Aegean islands in their thousands, placing enormous strains on local and regional governments.
Summit leaders had further agreed to explore the idea of creating “offshore platforms” but in reality, these would be offshore ‘camps’. This was with the aim of separating economic migrants (to be returned home) from genuine asylum seekers i.e. those escaping wars and poverty. The success of the plan can only be tested in practice. EU leaders stated they wanted to work with international agencies who may be willing to set up migrant camps in North Africa to process asylum claims. But this would have to be with a clear recognition that international norms of UN and international law were observed for the treatment of refugees – to which all EU member states are signatories. But the successful operation of camps in North Africa has no precedent and could not be equated with the EU’s refugee 2016 deal with Turkey, a country relatively able in its ability to control the war against terror and with years of experience in handling the fallout from the Syrian Civil War.
The EU’s Future Approach to Migration
The EU needed to convey a signal that it was now moving towards a firmer and more robust approach to migration. The summit was able to present a united front. Both Spain and Greece – as countries of ‘first arrival’ – entered a trilateral agreement with Germany for the return of refugees to be processed on this basis.
There are as usual critics of the ‘deal’ led by the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, an economist claiming the final deal had no substance and had amounted to a “deal in name only” which he did not believe would stabilise the European Union project.
However, it has triggered a long overdue debate on the reform of the now flawed EU asylum rules which – based on first-arrival countries obligation for processing asylum claims – has put a disproportionate burden on southern states nearest North Africa and Turkey; namely Italy and Greece. While the current refugee flows are
smaller than in 2015/16 these could increase in the future. The growth of failed states and a population explosion in Africa encourages careful planning not only for Europe but for all developed democracies. The management of migration will remain as important as Eurozone reform for the stability of the EU in the future.
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