Author: Saving Angela
IT WAS billed as the summit to save Angela Merkel. Instead it simply highlighted the unending difficulty that Europe’s leaders face in managing illegal immigration from outside the continent. At Mrs Merkel’s request, 16 EU leaders convened in Brussels today for an impromptu summit. The chancellor is under siege from a coalition partner that wants to turn away asylum-seekers at Germany’s borders. That, she fears, could trigger a domino effect across the EU, endangering its passport-free Schengen system. Having earned herself ten days breathing space at home, she arranged the meeting to work on what she calls a “European solution”.
But Italy’s new government, a populist coalition with a strong anti-immigrant streak, has other ideas. Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, brought to Brussels a ten-point “Multi-level Strategy for Migration”. Much of it trod familiar ground. The Italians want “disembarkation” points in North Africa, where migrants, including those saved at sea, can be brought for processing and to sort genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants. Others want these centres inside the EU; a scaled-up version of the “hotspots” that have been in place in Greece and Italy for several years, although perhaps with beefed-up detention facilities. Leaders will discuss all this at a full EU summit later this week, along with much else, including euro-zone reform.
The Italian plan also contained a bombshell. It proposes to end the link between a migrant’s point of arrival and the responsibility for processing his or her asylum claim. That seems to imply a radically stepped-up version of a controversial refugee-redistribution scheme pushed through in 2015, designed to relieve the burden from Greece and Italy. Unlike that programme the new Italian scheme would be permanent, and, crucially, would cover migrants from every country, not just those with a credible claim for refugee status. It is unworkable, because other EU countries are unwilling to participate.
Italy has a clear incentive to push such a scheme. Less than half the asylum-seekers that reach its shores are eligible for protection; it must take responsibility for deporting the rest, many of whom slip into the grey economy or across borders, or linger in Italy because their home countries will not take them back. But the EU has been trying to agree a less radical refugee-sharing proposal for years. Its biggest opponents, the “Visegrad” leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, boycotted today’s meeting. In particular Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, will not countenance any scheme that would oblige him to accept migrants.
In fact today’s summit was not as ill-humoured as some had predicted. The leaders like the principle of disembarkation camps, although it is not clear where and under whose jurisdiction they should be. They discussed rules to determine which state should take responsibility for ships bearing migrants, and agreed to carve up responsibility among themselves for striking deals with migrants’ home countries to speed up deportations. The EU’s largely toothless asylum body may be given more powers to adjudicate claims, helping to relieve national agencies. Money will be found for all this. Oddly, in a half-hour speech to his fellow leaders, Mr Conte did not dwell on his more radical proposals. He left the meeting declaring himself “very satisfied”.
Yet none of the underlying tensions has been resolved. Germany is desperate to stop asylum-seekers reaching its borders from elsewhere in the EU. Italy wants to stop as many of them as possible from arriving in the first place, and to ensure it does not need to take responsibility for those that do. The Visegrad countries resist any attempt to oblige them to share the burden. For the last few years leaders have attempted to sidestep such disagreements over the “internal” dimension of migration (how to manage migrants once inside the EU) by focusing on its “external” side (stopping them from coming in the first place). But the internal movement was always going to come back to bite. Indeed, the depth of the disagreements today is reminiscent of the migrant crisis of 2015-16, when the intensity of arguments among leaders exceeded anything seen in the depth of the euro crisis.
The difference now is that the “crisis” is political. Both illegal sea crossings and asylum claims (which lag behind migratory movements) are at their lowest for years, thanks in part to deals struck with Turkey and Libya. But the politics of migration operate on a delayed cycle. The refugee crisis boosted anti-immigration parties across Europe. In Italy the populists are attempting to deliver on their election promises from within government. In Germany they are increasingly calling the shots from outside.
The European debate therefore follows its own political logic, ever-more detached from the root causes of migratory flows. Discussions over wars in the Middle East, failed states in north Africa or poverty in sub-Saharan Africa will have to wait for another day. They always do.