Germany’s hunt for a coalition of the willing

Germany is searching for European partners to end its splendid isolation over the refugee crisis

On the sidelines of the EU-Turkey summit, the first to be held in eleven years, a pre-summit meeting took place, ‘chaired’ by Germany, in one more effort to lead its European partners in a common response to the refugee crisis.

Germany has been attempting to lead for quite some time. The EU-Turkey summit was largely pushed forward by Chancellor Merkel in a last bid effort to address influx of refugees via the Greek-Turkish maritime border. It has taken almost two months for the summit to take place and in that time Germany has had to stand in splendid isolation among its European partners, attempting to convince them on the benefits of implementing the relocation scheme agreed upon in early September, pushing for a permanent redistribution quota (President Juncker’s proposal, so far rejected) and facing an unprecedented number of arrivals that have transformed overnight the country to a ‘frontline’ state with strained resources and delays.

There is no doubt that the Chancellor’s stance is ethically and morally the right one. From a pragmatic perspective, Germany does have the capacity to absorb a significant number of refugees and migrants as does Europe as a whole. After all, 1 million is a drop in the ocean when redistributed across 28 member states. But the political reality is different. Eastern European member states do not want to be forced to take on refugees, and their refusal is born to an extent from the societal and cultural context in place, where multiculturalism is still a foreign concept. Others who might be willing, are currently unprepared to host large numbers. The economic cost – albeit temporary (especially if refugees are encouraged to access the job market which will make them economically independent sooner rather than later) – is significant for a continent currently facing a very slow economic growth and with member states already committing parts of their budget to hosting refugees, and now to offering Turkey a €3 billion deal.

The Paris attacks on 13 November have made any discussion even more difficult around resettlement and relocation, particularly for people arriving from Syria. Migration is now intrinsically linked with security, a link pushed forth by far right-wing parties that are increasing their political sway across Europe. At the same time, one after another the Western Balkans are closing their borders, redefining the right to asylum by allowing passage only to those originating from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. As Macedonia erects a barbed wire fence across its Greek land border, the prospects of thousands being left stranded in Greece looms nearer. It is a worst case scenario in a country currently facing one of the worst economic and political crises of its modern history.

And then there is the Schengen. President Tusk’s remarks that unless the external borders are well guarded, Schengen will collapse, are a grim but realistic prediction. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated very clearly what the north wants out of the south in relation to the border; “I want it shut. I don’t care how this happens, whether it is through pressure from Europe or through other agreements, just as long as it happens.” A counter solution would a mini Schengen, of five countries; Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg and Austria. The proposal has not been officially submitted to the Commission, but the fact that it is being discussed in the Dutch capital is indicative of a broader problem in the Union where member states remain divided along old allegiances and mistrust.

In this volatile mix, the decision by the Chancellor to host prior ‘pre-summit’ talks with a ‘coalition of the willing’, sets a dangerous precedent. Germany, Sweden, the Benelux countries, Austria, Greece and France met to discuss potential relocation of another 400,000 Syrians directly from Turkey.  Participants agreed to draft a proposal to be submitted in the next EU leaders’ summit in mid-December. Yet the idea discussed at the pre-summit meeting is not new. A similar one has been circulating in EU capitals through the European Stability Initiative. In the ESI plan Germany commits to taking 500,000 Syrians refugees from Turkey and other member states are invited to join in. Chancellor Merkel’s proposal is slightly modest in number, but fundamentally the same and of similar sentiment; to create legal avenues for Syrians to enter Europe. Unlike previous efforts, Germany seems disgruntled and rightly so, by its European partners and their unwillingness to commit. Hence, the search for a smaller coalition and perhaps a more manageable one. 

How will this type of ‘resettlement’ of 400,000 from Turkey take place when the Union has made the minimum progress in relocating the 120,000 committed from Greece and Turkey? Assuming such a plan goes ahead, other member states could join on a voluntary basis but volunteerism has rarely worked well in managing migrant and refugee flows and this year has proved it repeatedly.  What if no one else joins in? It would result in repeating the mistakes of the past, namely of having few members undertaking the responsibility and ‘burden sharing’ for the management of the refugees, with the rest sitting on the fence.  And what happens the next time a bloc of countries disagree or do not fall in line with Germany’s lead?

The issue is not in the numbers, but in the precedent and to an extent also in the perception created. For the Union to work, it is not enough for one member to lead with a few following, but rather it needs common ground for all to work together, in partnership. It is not an easy task in a Union comprised of member states with different interests, and in the area of migration cooperation seems increasingly unlikely. There are many different measures that could be tried. For a very long time, a system was set up that placed disproportionate responsibilities on member states. Restructuring the system, starting from the Common European Asylum System is a step that in the long run would help address some of these problems. Imposing some type of ‘penalties’ for member states that do not fulfil their obligation is another way, though it should be a measure of last resort.  Contribution and responsibility should reflect capacity, ability and means available, ranging from more financial contribution to additional commitment of equipment and personnel for the external borders, to direct assistance in third countries; in other words, different forms of participation and responsibility.

None of the above address in significant numbers the refugee crisis. But the harsh reality is there is no toolbox available to address the present crisis. There was time to create one a decade ago, but it has long since passed. For now, in parallel to being creative on dealing with the refugees, Europe needs to learn again how to cooperate. And it should be the Commission and DG Migration and Home Affairs that take the lead, rather than individual countries. The European Union has an executive body for proposing solutions and managing problems. It is far from a perfect or efficient body but it does represent us all. 

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Visiting Fellow

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