EU leaders, at their last summit of 2018, failed to reach agreement on a comprehensive overhaul of migration and asylum policy.
The failure to reach a deal was a particular defeat for the Commission, which had made a last-ditch attempt to try to push through a deal. The European Council’s refusal to act even on legislative initiatives that were close to completion drew a sharp rebuke from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who accused some national capitals of “hypocrisy” by critcizing Brussels but then refusing to implement policy changes.
“On migration I am less happy because the Commission has proposed seven initiatives, five of them are close to agreement but it was not possible to convince colleagues today to adopt these five proposals because there are the two missing elements,” Juncker said at the summit’s closing news conference, referring to the proposed reform of the Common European Asylum System,which is stuck over the issue of the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers.
He expressed particular frustration that the EU27 leaders did not even agree to move forward with an initiative to add 10,000 new border protection agents to help step up enforcement on the bloc’s external boundaries, despite spending years asking for reinforced borders protection.
“I must say that this is one area where I am slowly losing my patience,” Juncker said. “This is not something which a president should say to the Council but I did say there is a white elephant in the room and that is hypocrisy. Everyone is urging us and inviting us time and time again to increase the controls at our external borders … which is why we came forth with these new proposals.” Inside the room he threatened to withdraw the proposal for the additional 10,000 new border guards, according to three diplomats.
Officials said that anger boiled over, with Charles Michel delivering a sharply worded statement largely aimed at Viktor Orbán.
“I was taken aback to see a certain number of countries, particularly those who are in the front line, are now refusing to even contemplate strengthening our external borders,” Juncker said. “So please never tell me again that we should strengthen our external borders if you don’t implement our proposals.”
Juncker’s frustration reflected the deep and continuing disagreement among leaders, in countries like Hungary, which have taken a hard line on migration, and frontier countries like Italy demanding that the EU as a whole do more to reduce the burden of migrants and refugees.
Talking to journalists after the meeting, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel delivering a sharply worded statement largely aimed at Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, calling into question membership of the Schengen zone for countries that don’t show solidarity.
The largely fruitless debate showed how leaders’ policy positions have barely budged an inch — even as a continuing reduction in the number of arrivals has eased some of the pressure on the bloc this year.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte | Stephanie Lecocq/EFE via EPA
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš intervened to implore his colleagues to at least avoid a repeat of a summit last June when Italy effectively forced leaders to stay locked in a room, until just before dawn, in a bid to impose its requests on migrants.
According to three diplomats, the leaders’ conversation on Friday began with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte proposing to add language to draft summit conclusions saying that “measures to prevent secondary migration should be strengthened.”
The issue of secondary movements is also a priority of Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Austria. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras noted that the text as drafted effectively meant indefinitely postponing a comprehensive overhaul of the bloc’s so-called Dublin rules on asylum. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte pushed back against Rutte, saying he would theoretically want language added to the conclusion on “primary movements” — the arrivals that most affect frontier countries like Italy.
It was this circular debate — a fight that has persisted as long as the EU has wrestled with migration — that led Babiš to make his plea for avoiding the drawn-out debacle of last June.
Council President Donald Tusk, who diplomats said has been reluctant to return to the contentious debate on migration, suggested that the original version of the conclusions be adopted as-is, and that was the result.
According to one diplomat, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel then took the floor to stress that a frank and honest discussion was needed and he noted that Belgium, where the government coalition has collapsed because of a dispute over migration policy, is now in crisis largely because Michel had sought to respect EU commitments on migration.