Author: Leo Cendrowicz
Europe is having another migration moment. With an Italian minister planning a Mussolini-style census of gypsies, Germany’s Angela Merkel threatened by her own coalition partner, and Hungary now criminalising aid to illegal immigrants, European politics is becoming poisonous again. The European Union’s hastily-arranged mini-summit in Brussels yesterday failed to overcome the differences between leaders, and this week’s full gathering is unlikely to settle them either.
And yet, an irony about the latest migration squall is that the number of refugees heading towards the bloc is falling dramatically. About 41,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean in the first 24 weeks of 2018, according to International Organisation for Migration, a United Nations agency. The arrival figures are 51 per cent down on the same time last year and 81 per cent down on 2016.
There has been an equivalent drop in asylum applications to EU countries, which fell 44 per cent last year compared with 2016, according to the European Asylum Support Office’s annual report. The number of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians seeking asylum has more than halved.
But any facts about real migration flows have been blown away by a perfect political storm. The new populist Italian government that came to power this month, led by the far-right League, and radical left Five Star, has torpedoed Europe’s migration and asylum policy by closing the country’s ports to the Aquarius, a ship carrying 630 rescued migrants. The League leader, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has also railed against the Roma or gypsy population, and his call for a “registry” of the nomadic ethnic groups has earned him comparisons with Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
At the same time, Mrs Merkel’s own hardline Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, has demanded changes in German law to turn back at the border refugees already registered in other European countries – also in defiance of EU migration rules. Mr Seehofer is leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) party, the Bavarian sister party to Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU): he has set a two-week deadline for the Chancellor to come up with an EU-wide asylum policy or risk the collapse of the current German coalition government.
In Hungary, the parliament has just approved laws criminalising help for illegal immigrants. The laws are so broadly worded that it could even mean jail for someone who gives food to an undocumented migrant on the street or attends a political rally on refugee rights. The measure is named the ‘Stop Soros’ package, after the Hungarian-American philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros, who Prime Minister Viktor Orban accuses of masterminding an international plot to destroy Hungary through migration.
Trump wades in
Into this already febrile mix, President Donald Trump – facing his own migration crisis – chose to further antagonise Mrs Merkel with one of his most provocative tweets. “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” he said, adding that, “Crime in Germany is way up”. Again, the facts do not bear it out: Germany’s Interior Ministry in May recorded the lowest crime levels since 1992.
It was left to Pope Francis to offer a gentler response: last Wednesday, on World Refugee Day, he tweeted that, “A person’s dignity does not depend on them being a citizen, a migrant, or a refugee. Saving the life of someone fleeing war and poverty is an act of humanity.”
But EU leaders are turning against migration. Thanks to border closures and a dubious deal with Turkey, the EU has sealed off the refugee path from Greece through the Western Balkans. Stopping the far riskier journey across the central Mediterranean is a much more complex problem: Italy continues to receive boatloads of people, and its migrant centres are overflowing. Mr Salvini claims his country has ended up as the “refugee camp of Europe”.
The new Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte insists on the need to beef up Frontex – Europe’s external border police – to up to 10,000 by the end of 2020. The European Commission has proposed a tripling of funding for border control and migration issues to €9 billion in the EU’s next seven-year budget between 2021 and 2027.
Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warns of a migrant “catastrophe” similar to 2015 crisis if Europe does not agree a common response. In an unfortunate remark that brought to mind wartime alliances, Mr Kurz called on Italy and Germany to form a “Rome-Berlin-Vienna axis of the willing” to fight illegal migration.
Even France’s President Macron, who lambasted Italy for turning away the Aquarius ship, has passed some harsh immigration legislation, as he aims to head off the challenge from the far-right National Front.
Spreading the loading
Judy Dempsey, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank says Italy and other southern European countries have the right to demand greater solidarity on migration, while the EU should spread the load through refugee relocation. “The problem is that eastern European countries – along with Austria, the next president of the EU – firmly oppose such reform, instead favouring strict border controls,” she says.
Yesterday’s summit Brussels did not include Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic: they all said they boycotted it, even though they never received an invitation. All four governments hold fierce anti-migration views, and last September, the European Court of Justice threw out a legal challenge by Slovakia and Hungary against the EU’s relocation policy for asylum seekers.
But their concerns are being taken into account as hostility mounts against migrants. At their full summit in Brussels next Thursday and Friday, EU leaders will look into creating processing centres, or “disembarkation platforms” in north Africa and elsewhere to screen asylum requests before claimants get to Europe. “Such platforms should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys,” the draft summit statement says.
Where should these centres actually be? No north African country has yet agreed to host them, even though feelers have been put out to Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Niger and Morocco, all countries that received hefty EU aid.
Kicking the can
Even if they can be agreed, it opens the EU up to criticism that it is kicking their political problems down the road. “EU governments only seem able to agree on outsourcing responsibility and insourcing misery,” says Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
But if the EU does strengthen its external borders to ensure prospective asylum seekers arrive in an orderly way, it would change the bloc in a profound way, says Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Immigration overhaul would be a far more important development in the long run for the European project than any plausible tinkering with euro area institutions,” he says. “Make no mistake: Europe will have taken over another crucial element of traditional statehood and implemented reforms that for the first time have a real chance of addressing the true causes of populism in Europe.”
All that is still some way off, though. If the past week – or indeed, the past three years – have shown, it is that the EU is still painfully divided and incoherent over migration.