A new deal on EU burden-sharing

Large scale refugee flows into the EU are the new normal. Though the numbers tailed off somewhat over the winter from their peak in autumn 2015, there will be no quick solutions to the conflicts and deep problems that drive people to migrate to the EU. The political narrative around the refugee crisis is misconceived: although it is important for the EU to engage diplomatically in Syria, we should be under no illusion that this will significantly reduce flows in the medium term. Achieving any sort of peace in Syria will take time, and in any case, over 60 percent of refugees currently arriving in the EU are from elsewhere. Europe’s political leaders cannot promise to do more than manage the refugee crisis – there is no “solution”. Europe’s population will become more mixed, and its societies will be forced to adjust their mindsets and accept this.

But while the EU makes the difficult transition to accepting this new reality, it is urgent to prevent internal divisions from destroying the fabric of the union. EU states will have to rebuild solidarity, and develop a European response to the crisis. This is easier said than done in the current environment, where fear is driving a pan-European blame game, and causing the re-emergence of national borders across the Schengen zone. Last week’s so-called Vienna summit – where Austria brought together a group of member states from the EU’s southeast with non-EU Balkan countries to discuss border reinforcement in light of ongoing refugee flows via Greece – brought this home resoundingly.

The summit was a step backward in terms of exacerbating EU divisions – particularly riling Greece, which perceived it as an insulting failure to recognise the pressure that the country is under to simply block off refugees on its side of the Macedonian border. However, the final agreement was a sign of participants’ willingness to cooperate further in terms of pooling human and financial resources on border management, and to agree common principles on asylum criteria. If these seeds of co-operation could be transferred to the management of the EU’s external borders, and used to build a shared European asylum policy, enabling more pooling of resources for processing asylum applications , then member states might begin to move towards finding a way out of this crisis together.

To do this, EU countries will need to re-conceptualise burden-sharing between member states – and perhaps including the non-EU Balkan countries, given the close interdependence between their stability and EU stability in the context of the refugee flows. This understanding should be based on two key principles:

  • A broader definition of the “burden”. The conversation should not only be about how many refugees each EU state is willing to take in, but about the contribution they can make to the crisis response as a whole, from financial support and human resources for reception, accommodation and integration to external border management; long term overseas aid to refugee camps in other regions; scaling up the resettlement of refugees from camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries and diplomatic efforts on the sources of conflicts that drive refugee flows.
  • Each member state playing their part. At the moment, the refusal of certain larger EU states (the UK first among them) to play a role in relocating refugees from the EU’s external border countries is providing cover for other states refusing to participate at all. Showing that all states are playing a role would take away the excuse for some not doing anything, and reintroduce a sense that the EU’s members are in this together.

A major challenge for this broader refugee crisis response  is sequencing. There is no point trying to implement the different parts of the package on their own – the measures are just too interdependent. However, different parts of the package are more significant to some member states than to others – for example, states currently under intense pressure from refugee arrivals, such as Sweden, Greece, and Austria, may be unlikely to accept any deal without a heightened commitment to relocation within Europe.

As is clear from attempts to push the relocation deal, neither the European Commission alone, nor any single member state – even one as powerful as Germany – is capable of driving this new deal forward alone. A coalition of the willing will be essential to take it forward. This group already exists: the Netherlands, in the EU Council presidency, along with Germany, Austria, and Greece, are currently acting as an informal steering group on the policy response to the refugee crisis, and would be well placed to move this reconceptualisation forward. German policymakers understand that the likely price of a European response is that they will shoulder an outsized share of the burden.

Within this framing, a number of complementary ideas could facilitate a redistribution of the pressure from refugee flows by providing options for engagement that are more politically palatable to different member states:

  • A common asylum fund to which all member states contribute based on capacity, and which offers financial support to those that are processing higher numbers of arrivals. This might be the maximum that the most reluctant states (Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic) are willing to offer, and could be used to support arrival states such as Greece with reception and processing, and destination states such as Germany and Sweden with integration.
  • A system of burden-sharing by task rather than by refugee numbers, with different states taking responsibility for different stages of the process. This might mean a taskforce of Finns being sent to Greece to support border management, or the French embassy in Lebanon processing claims for other EU states. It would involve member states sacrificing some sovereignty to the European level on processing as the price for receiving support from other countries. A commonly agreed set of principles on asylum would make it clearer what countries were committing to with the relocation agreement, making this an explicit commitment to integrate refugees in the long term.
  • A humanitarian action task force focused on the transit countries outside the EU’s external borders possibly funded by the common asylum fund, to stabilise these pressurised situations and enable greater overseas processing of asylum claims. This could be funded through a common asylum fund, or member states that were not contributing in other ways to the burden of refugee arrivals could contribute directly.
  • A new deal on resettlement, to scale up the number of refugees taken directly from camps outside the EU and discourage people from making the dangerous journey to Europe. This is currently under discussion among some member states – notably a “coalition of the willing” considering resettlement of refugees currently in Turkey, but could be rolled out more broadly, as Lebanon and Jordan are also under severe pressure. For many member states, a new goal on resettlement would have to be accompanied by an internationalisation of this goal, ideally in the UN context; an increased effort to improve the long-term prospects for refugees currently in host countries in the region, as is already underway in Turkey as part of the November 2015 EU-Turkey plan; and a greater commitment to relocation of those already in Europe to stabilise the situation in countries such as Greece, Sweden, Austria and Germany. With these conditions in place, the resettlement part of the jigsaw might become politically possible. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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