One thing the EU doesn’t need right now – in its fragile post-Turkey deal, pre-UK referendum state – is another row about handling the refugee crisis. Political leaders are – understandably – jittery enough about whether the lower numbers of refugee arrivals since the first quarter of 2016 will hold through the warmer summer months, or whether the Adriatic route via Libya will become the next crisis point. The resignation last week of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and the stormy rumblings from key EU capitals and the European Parliament on the visa liberalisation issue have further jeopardised hopes that March’s EU-Turkey bargain on returns and resettlement will continue to run smoothly.
But, as our recent ECFR paper “Bear any burden” highlighted, even a fully implemented EU-Turkey deal would not resolve the question of how the member states can collectively handle the refugees who have already arrived in the EU, but for whom there was insufficient capacity in their first country of arrival, where, under the Dublin Agreement they are required to lodge their asylum request. Over 56,000 such people are effectively trapped in Greece, with the Balkan route into the EU blocked further upstream by border closures, and the Greek reception and processing systems struggling to keep up with the number of applicants.
Over 56,000 such people are effectively trapped in Greece, with the Balkan route into the EU blocked further upstream by border closures, and the Greek reception and processing systems struggling to keep up with the number of applicants.
The package of proposals for reforming the Common European Asylum System that the European Commission released on 4 May was intended to be an institutional answer to this question. A number of the principles within the package were welcome. As we advocated in “Bear any burden”, the Commission does propose a new form of burden sharing to relieve pressure on the member states on the “frontlines” and receiving the most refugee arrivals – at the external borders and as preferred destinations within the EU. The set of proposals also calls for a recognition of different types of contribution to the refugee crisis response, including resettlement from overseas camps, and financial assistance to support member states under more pressure, rather than focusing only on arrivals in country and relocation within Europe.
However, it has certainly not gone far enough in reconceptualising burden sharing on the refugee crisis to avoid further disputes when it is discussed at Council level. Quite the opposite in fact, since it fails entirely to acknowledge the political context of the proposals. After the failure to implement the EU- relocation deal (only about 1,000 of a proposed 160,000 have been relocated so far); after the painful realisation in Paris, and elsewhere, that Berlin had largely negotiated the Turkey deal alone on the EU’s behalf, non-voluntary systems simply will not work.
The relocation deal refuseniks led by the Visegrád states – Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – have reacted angrily to the suggestion made in the new proposals that member states who do not wish to participate in relocation can choose instead to pay what is effectively a €250,000 fine for each refugee that they do not take in. The payment will go to the member state that does take the refugee, meaning that the refusing member state foots the bill for them. Budapest has termed the new proposals “blackmail”, while Warsaw has called them a bad joke.
The other key pillar of the Commission’s new plan, to create an EU Agency for Asylum, does not really seem to involve much that the current European Asylum Office doesn’t already cover, except for a number of mandate changes. The reasons why the support operation for the Greek government is not currently processing the backlog of arrivals effectively is firstly a question of capacity. Member states are beginning to contribute to resolving this but not at a sufficient level and with insufficient funding and coordination. The second issue is that the current operation in Greece does not have the necessary political clout with other member states to negotiate where refugees can be accommodated and integrated once their claims have been accepted.
The political crisis surrounding the handling of refugee inflows in the EU has now reached a stage where there is too much bad blood for a “more of the same” approach to have much hope of working.
The new EU Agency for Asylum would not resolve either of these issues as it would still sit under the authority of the Commission. This is why a member-state-led humanitarian action taskforce is desperately needed, with its first task being to operate in Greece. In our aforementioned paper we have suggested that it should be headed up by a political figure – possibly a former head of state – who could negotiate directly with EU governments. This way member states would have confidence in the initiative, and a stake in the processing of asylum requests by this body, as well as a sense of collective ownership of the solution, rather than simply being expected to implement the results agreed by a body which they do not feel a part of.
The political crisis surrounding the handling of refugee inflows in the EU has now reached a stage where there is too much bad blood for a “more of the same” approach to have much hope of working. The only way forward is for member states to rediscover a sense of being in this together – getting beyond stereotypes about who is pulling their weight and who isn’t; acknowledging the contribution of all parts of the response including foreign policy, and agreeing, rather than imposing a way forward. Unfortunately, as the Commission proposals head towards a Council discussion they do not seem capable of provoking anything other than the next phase of an ongoing row that is driving ever deeper divisions in an already suffering EU.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.