Europe’s current menu of crises is dominated by the ongoing non-EU migration fuelling the widespread political tensions throughout the EU. Mass migration has become the prominent cause for the explosive rise of populist and nationalist movements in Hungary, Poland and other EU post-2004 accession states pursuing in their political manifestos the immigration agenda. The immediate catalyst for this revolt – against uncontrolled and unwanted immigration (UMI) – resulted from the courageous decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 to accept over a million refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq and other countries. Her decision was made with well-intentioned, humanitarian reasons. But many now believe this could be her undoing and may well have tipped the scales in the Brexit vote (in favour) of the UK leaving the EU.
Today, few observers could defend Brussels for the way this crisis has been handled. Asylum quotas – to share the distribution of migrants – have been arbitrarily imposed (by the EU Commission) without sufficient bilateral negotiation and consensus with member states. The current situation presents an existential threat to the Schengen Agreement (14th June 1985) on open borders, undermining the treasured EU principle of freedom of movement.
As a cause of populism and public concern, mass migration now dwarfs the economic issues facing the Eurozone. Critics of EU immigration policy are not just in Europe. In the US, President Trump joins a chorus of criticism directed at Chancellor Merkel and her government accusing her of allowing immigrants to “violently” change Germany’s culture, no doubt helping to deflect from the international outcry against his (administration’s) treatment of young children separated from their parents detained for illegal entry at the US – Mexican border.
Italy, one of the EU’s founding members, has just voted in a populist coalition that is actively preventing refugees landing at Italian ports. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy Prime Minister and new hardline interior minister, has recently refused port entry to refugee ships – the most recent example is the ‘Aquarius’ carrying 600 migrants last week. Italy (as with Greece) has shouldered the burden of receiving large numbers of refugees since 2013 with little effective support from Brussels. Nevertheless, its current change of policy has been widely criticised by a number of EU leaders.
Worse still comes the news that on the 20th June the Hungarian Parliament, led by Viktor Orban’s Fidesz right-wing (majority) party, has pushed through a series of laws making it a criminal offence for anyone (group or individual) to assist/help an illegal immigrant to claim asylum – an act seen as being in contravention of European law and a flagrant breach of (an asylum seekers) human rights.
The Next Step
In Germany, Chancellor Merkel is facing a showdown/growing tensions with her CSU partners in the new German coalition government. The Bavarian CSU party, led by Horst Seehoffer (interior minister in the coalition), is threatening to close Germany’s southern border to refugees at the entry point for the mass migration of Syrian refugees in 2015 – unless the Chancellor can achieve effective agreement for an EU wide new asylum strategy. Horst Seehofer’s ultimatum gives her just 14 days to accomplish this.
The European Commission has, at the request of Germany, called for an emergency summit meeting of key European leaders to be convened in Brussels on 24th June 2018 to discuss migration. The leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Austria, Bulgaria, Spain, and Malta have all been invited to attend the meeting which comes ahead of the June European Council summit on the 28th June, 2018, when migration will again be an important focus.
EU Draft Plan
There is a plan under consideration at the EU Summit to send all asylum seekers rescued at sea to disembarkation platforms in countries outside the EU where ‘processing centres’ would be established to sift economic migrants from “those in need of international protection” –i.e. refugees.
This plan is fraught with obstacles. Legal problems would arise if migrants were diverted to centres in countries which were deemed unsafe. The plan would also rely heavily on the support of the UNHCR Refugee agency and other migration support groups. The issue of asylum quotas has still to be resolved, as deep divisions remain. The ruling Law and Justice party (PIS) in Warsaw has firmly rejected quotas, as has the other governments in the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Slovakia).
This will not be the first time that Brussels has attempted to solve migration issues. Merkel achieved a successful deal with the Turkish government in March 2016 to reduce the flow of asylum-seekers into the EU. President Erdogan agreed to take back Syrian migrants reaching Greece illegally, via the Aegean islands. This was in return for the relocation in Europe of Syrian refugees now in camps in Turkey. This was a comprehensive deal to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees through Greece. Turkey received a €3bn payoff in financial aid to manage the crisis, plus EU visa access for Turkish citizens – although the visa promise is still to be implemented.
Whatever is decided in the coming days (and months), Europe’s migration problems will not go away. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s Chancellor, who heads up a coalition with the far-right Freedom party (FPO), has made it clear that immigration will be a central theme of his six month EU presidency when Austria takes over on the 1st of July 2018.
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