On 22 June, EU leaders met informally in Brussels to devise a much-needed solution to Europe’s migration crisis. Yet they made no substantive progress in the effort, merely agreeing to seek unity on the issue whenever possible, and to continue the discussion at a summit on 28-29 June. The meeting once again underlined the differences between their stakes in the crisis, and their lack of innovative responses.
Conflicting national concerns
It was clear from the beginning of the meeting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel aimed to persuade countries on the European Union’s periphery to accept more asylum seekers, thereby helping her weather a domestic political storm. Facing a challenge from Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, she seeks ways to block secondary movements of refugees and other migrants in Europe that do not require the consent of all 28 EU member states.
Italy and Greece want the opposite. Closed borders, an end to secondary movements, and the return of asylum seekers to the first EU country in which they registered would require these countries to host far more refugees. Therefore, they aim to share the responsibility with the rest of the EU, and to separate the rescue of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean from the requirement to shelter them.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s interests also differ from Merkel’s. He aims to prove that, under his leadership, the EU can find a common European solution to the crisis.
Despite their rhetoric to the contrary, governments in the Visegrád group – Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – have little genuine interest in resolving the migration crisis. This is because the crisis boosts their domestic support without affecting their countries as severely as it does Italy, Greece, Spain, or Germany. If the EU resolves the issue effectively and consistently, politicians such as Hungarian President Viktor Orbán will need a new issue with which to energise voters and demonstrate their opposition to Brussels.
At the meeting in Brussels, Bulgaria – another country in which many refugees first register – sought to remind other member states of its key role in facilitating the EU-Turkey migration deal. Sofia hopes that, due to its contribution to the agreement, it will not be forced to host more asylum seekers or a refugee centre.
The problems with external refugee centres
The differences between European leaders still appear to be greater than their shared interests. The migration crisis has created a new political reality in countries such as Austria, Hungary, Italy, and even Germany. By capitalising on the migration crisis, nativist parties have made electoral gains and shifted the political mainstream to the right. Thus, it is no surprise that EU leaders have only been able to agree on measures that prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe – such as the development of EU border control mechanisms through Frontex, and the establishment of refugee centres outside the EU. Although this first measure is justifiable, the second is far more problematic.
The idea of setting up refugee centres in third countries is not new. It is back on the agenda only due to the lack of a politically viable alternative. Although the notion appeals to voters in various parts of Europe, it could create several problems for the EU.
For the moment, it is unclear which countries would be willing to host the centres. However, the EU would undermine its neighbourhood policy if it were to ask Albania to do so. This would cast doubt on the credibility of offering a European perspective to countries in the Western Balkans. The EU would risk severely damaging its reputation in the region if it decided to open accession negotiations with Albania in return for the country agreeing to accept a refugee centre. Moreover, opening a centre would decrease Albania’s chances of joining the EU in the short term, as the European Commission and member states would want to continue to use it as buffer against migration.
It remains unclear what procedures external refugee centres would adopt, given that they would fall outside the EU’s jurisdiction. This problem would also affect judicial reviews of asylum decisions. Thus, the EU would risk undermining asylum procedures at all its refugees centres.
Moreover, it would difficult to ensure the security of these centres. What resources would EU countries be willing to commit to the task? Would they be willing to send their security forces to centres in, for instance, Libya, Tunisia, or Albania? Protecting the facilities – which would potentially host tens of thousands of people – could require EU forces to adopt vague and unworkable rules of engagement. For some European states, this situation might evoke memories of the Srebrenica massacre, which European forces failed to stop partly due to the lack of a clear mandate or rules of engagement.
The EU can ill afford to let its external refugee centres become the scene of human-rights abuses – not only because of the humanitarian implications of this, but because also Brussels’ aim to set global standards on human rights. Although the EU is ready to partner with humanitarian organisations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, it would not have full control of the situation on the ground. As events outside the EU show, refugee centres often experience severe violations of international humanitarian law.
The need for new solutions
Bearing all these issues in mind, EU leaders should focus on developing a different set of solutions. Firstly, the EU should establish a migration agency to create and, most importantly, implement efficient asylum procedures. Secondly, it should formulate a detailed plan for improving living conditions in countries from which most refugees originate. However, the EU should avoid pouring money into states that are unlikely to engage in reforms.
Due to widespread frustration with the migration crisis among European voters, many humane and effective migration policies are no longer politically viable. Yet EU leaders must act carefully even while under pressure to quickly resolve the crisis, lest they adopt policies that, in the long run, create more problems than they solve.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.