The European Union’s latest attempt to bring in new rules on migration has all-but failed.
While one of the near-fatal blows was to be expected — the new populist government in Italy — another came from an unusual source: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who adopted an open-door refugee policy during the crisis of 2015.
On Tuesday, EU interior ministers will meet in Luxembourg to discuss the issue. The hope for those pushing for reform is for an agreement to be struck by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels at the end of this month.
But that seems increasingly unlikely.
The new Italian government has only just taken office but already made clear its opposition to a plan drawn up by Bulgaria, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU until the end of June.
Angela Merkel made clear that she wants to avoid a repeat of 2015, when the migration crisis hit and the EU was split over how to respond.
“I won’t be there [on Tuesday] but there’ll be our delegation to say no,” Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, who on Friday was appointed interior minister, told Italian radio.
Even before Salvini put the knife into the plans, Berlin, which has done more than any other capital to try and secure a deal, admitted defeat is a distinct possibility.
In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, the Sunday bulletin of Germany’s establishment, Merkel held out faint hope of a deal, saying: “I think it’s better that we should try for a few more weeks to find a common solution, because this is such an important subject for the European Union.”
Yet she made clear that she wants to avoid a repeat of 2015, when the migration crisis hit and the EU was split over how to respond.
A solution on this subject will certainly have to be prepared in the European Council” — German Chancellor Angela Merkel
In September that year, the EU used majority voting to approve a mandatory emergency relocation plan for 120,000 refugees. It triggered anger in Hungary, and later in Poland and throughout Central and Eastern Europe, which didn’t want to take in refugees, let alone be forced to do so.
Those countries refused to take part and at the end of the scheme’s two-year lifespan, just 35,000 refugees had been relocated.
To use majority voting again would be even more divisive now that the likes of Italy and Austria can be added to the list of opponents — and Merkel seems to recognize that.
“As chancellor I belong to the European Council, in which decisions always have to be taken unanimously. So the question of a majority decision is not relevant there. A solution on this subject will certainly have to be prepared in the European Council,” she said.
Crisis part II
Yet while EU leaders deliberate, another crisis could soon hit.
During the first few months of 2018, the overall number of arrivals into the EU has fallen, mainly because of a 78 percent drop in migrants heading to Italy, according to the Council’s figures. Yet arrivals to Spain rose by 50 percent on the same period in 2017, and in Greece the rise was 161 percent on last year.
The doomed-to-fail Bulgarian proposal is the latest in a long line of attempts to solve the problem.
“The situation remains volatile,” says the Council’s latest state of play on migration obtained by POLITICO. It adds that the lack of a full-fledged EU crisis mechanism “pose[s] challenges to the overall EU response, in particular if the flows were to increase significantly once again.”
And, diplomats say, the lack of an efficient migration plan makes the EU more exposed to countries putting up walls and fences.
Under the current migration legislation, known as Dublin III, the country in which a migrant arrives is responsible for their asylum claim — and Rome and Athens feel that puts them under too much pressure.
Then there’s the second part of the problem, solidarity. The Mediterranean countries want help but say they aren’t getting it. The previous, center-left Italian government also seemed inclined to reject the Bulgarian proposal, as it was too short on solidarity, diplomats said.
If no deal can be reached, the ball will be in the court of European Council President Donald Tusk.
The doomed-to-fail Bulgarian proposal is the latest in a long line of attempts to solve the problem (the Dutch, Slovak, Maltese and Estonian presidencies all tried and failed).
In the latest drafts of the Bulgarian proposal, seen by POLITICO, countries would only be responsible for migrants for the first eight years after the registration of an asylum seeker and it would be harder to apply for asylum in other countries. But Italy and other Mediterranean countries say eight years is still too long and want it reduced to two years. And that’s just one of the issues: The Italians would also like to see more done by the EU when “ordinary” migration flows turn into emergencies.
If no deal can be reached, the ball will be in the court of European Council President Donald Tusk. At a dinner of EU leaders last month in Sofia, he said that in case of failure he would personally take over the file.
But diplomats agree that he’ll find it just as difficult as everyone else has.
“I strongly doubt there’ll be an agreement by the end of the month,” said a diplomat closed involved in migration talks.