Despite the German Willkommen and open border policy, it seems that the EU is retreating to its old and familiar ways. The European strategy of dealing with the refugee crisis has consisted of a mixed bag of messages and policies for the last year, and has been trapped between the “two faces” of Europe: the Union that upholds liberal norms and a “fortress Europe” that seems increasingly illiberal. Despite the changeability of Europe’s position, there have been two observable consistencies. One has been the continuous arrival of refugees and irregular migrants, and the other, Europe’s failure to address the crisis.
Austria’s announcement on 20 Januarythat it is imposing a cap on asylum applications is the latest development in an endless round of reactive measures taken by member states to control the arrival of refugees and limit access to asylum. It is unclear how Austria’s decision to cap the number of applications to 1.5 percent of the population will be implemented considering that EU asylum law and the Geneva Refugee Convention do not allow for it. The only way that any semblance of a cap could be put in place would be through a burden sharing mechanism, through which quotas could be allocated to member states.
The refugee crisis did not create a political rift in the Union but it did reveal a pre-existing one, at least in relation to migration. The system was built on uneven foundations from the beginning. It placed an overwhelming amount of responsibility on frontline member states which were forced to act as gatekeepers to the EU’s Schengen zone.
The current schizophrenia amongst the Union, where some member states practice open door policies while others raise fences against refugees, is not new. Its manifestation is, but the underlying problem is still that migration is approached by member states in two contradictory ways: people are deterred from coming to Europe in the first place, but those who do arrive are offered protection. This contradictory approach has been built into the system and has enabled member states to avoid taking shared responsibility for migration and asylum policy. There is still no coherent European asylum policy, no shared recognition of positive claims, and no consistent migration policy that engages third countries in a way that is beneficial to both sides.
In 2015 more than one million refugees and irregular migrants crossed the EU’s external borders via maritime routes, with approximately 80 percent having entered through Greece. As the EU has struggled to respond to the crisis, the Janus face of Europe’s migration policy has resurfaced. On the one hand, Germany stood alone in declaring that refugees would be welcomed, and although it was a move to be applauded morally, it was one that few in Europe actively supported. The fact that relocation had to be agreed by majority vote was the nail in the coffin for an EU that continues to battle with an existential dilemma: how to ensure protection for its citizens while simultaneously welcoming those in need of safety.
It is now possible to admit that relocation has failed and its failure was systemic.
To begin with, the design of the relocation process highlighted limited understanding regarding migratory flows, specifically what motivates and attracts them. No one, for example, accounted for the fact that Greece has a very low rate in asylum applications, despite the new Greek Asylum Service.
Greece has not been an “end destination” country for asylum seekers in more than a decade. The fact of the financial crisis alone means that prospects of employment in the country are meagre at best. When you consider the lack of state support extended to asylum applicants in Greece it is unsurprising Germany and Sweden are the favoured destinations. It is not financial assistance that attracts people per se, but some guarantee that the state will support them and enable them to become active members of society.
The architects of the relocation process also failed to factor in the role of smugglers, who are providing a faster means of entry to Europe than the bureaucratic mechanisms of member states can keep up with. At the peak of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015 a family could reach Germany within a week.
Four months on, only 272 people have been relocated from Greece and Italy out of the 120,000 that was originally agreed upon. Germany has presented the hotspots as a prerequisite for relocation, however, despite Italy having three hotspots, relocation numbers remain extremely low. This is partly due to the unwillingness of member states to put themselves forward for the challenge and partly due to flaws in the system.
At present, the route from Greece to the Western Balkans remains open only for those who seek to apply for asylum in Germany and Austria, who hold valid documents, and are Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans or Syrians. On arrival to Greece, they are asked to declare their destination country and this will be asked again at each border crossing. Though Germany is seeing a reduction in arrivals from 10,000 to 3,000 per day, the same cannot be said for Greece, which has already registered 43,000 people since the start of 2016 and operated the most porous border in the EU.
As before, EU leaders will continue to push the problem beyond their doorstep and onto their neighbours as best as they can. First Greece, then Turkey, but who next? It is unrealistic to expect that Turkey will be able (or willing) to sustain the growing number of refugees in its country indefinitely. The idea of relocation directly from Turkeyis a potential way forward, but it stumbles upon the same fundamental problem; member states need to be willing to participate and it cannot be Germany alone. The calls for increased border controls, the discussion about pushing Greece out of Schengen, the reinforcement of the Western Balkans, and the gradual roll back of rights and protections that were developed in the aftermath of the Second World War (e.g. family reunification) are all indicators that Europe is moving backwards.
Germany’s attempt to tackle the crisis on multiple fronts remains the only viable option and the only indication at present of a way forward that looks to the future. Such a strategy would require Turkey to improve conditions for Syrian refugees in order to make sure they are able to remain in the country on a long-term basis. Greece has to implement the hotspots and set up reception facilities to regulate arrivals, however relocation will need to be adapted to factor in the limited number of asylum applications. A broader relocation scheme with the participation of countries outside the EU should be set up and the search for a political solution to the Syrian conflict has to continue, addressing at least one segment of arrivals. However, none of these measures can be effective on their own unless EU member states also commit financial and human resources, and share the burden and responsibility. It requires the leadership and a political vision of a Europe that is able to push itself and others forward.
In ancient Roman religion and myth Janus was the God of transition, passages and endings. The doors of his temple were open in times of war and closed in times of peace. Europe’s doors are also closing fast, and not only to the refugees, it seems, but between member states too.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.