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21st Apr 2019

Tusk migration note prompts institutional 'hysteria'

  • Tusk has called the migration quotas "ineffective", an anathema for the EU Commission (Photo: Consilium)

European Council president Donald Tusk has sparked controversy with a note on migration that has been called "anti-European" by an EU commissioner.

Tusk has called for a debate on migration at the EU summit on Thursday (14 December) in a note to EU leaders that described the migration relocation quotas as "highly divisive" and "ineffective".

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EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk's note "anti-European", which in the Brussels' EU bubble translates to plain heresy.

Tusk's note has caused ripples among member states as well, and it highlights insitutional frictions that plagued the EU's handling of the migration crisis.

The text of the note has been changed after serious concerns were raised at a meeting of EU diplomats on Monday (11 December).

The result was propping up the role of the EU in tackling the migration crisis, and cuts on saying that only member states can take on the crisis by individual action or on a bilateral basis.

"The text could have given the impression that the role of the EU institutions was not very important … The formulation he [Tusk] used caused controversy, but the note is now corrected," an EU diplomat said.

"What Tusk says about the mandatory quotas is only stating the obvious," said another EU source, pointing out that only 32,000 people have been relocated form Greece and Italy in the same period as 1.5 million have applied for aslyum in Europe.

The source added that Tusk did not call into question the relocation scheme that was adopted in 2015, but pointed at difficuties concerning the future mechanisms on relocation proposed by the commission as part of a reform of the so-called Dublin asylum mechanism.

The commission just last week referred the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to the EU Court of Justice, because they have not complied with the 2015 decision.

The commission's spokesman said Wednesday that Tusk's note "only partly reflects the comprehensive and encompassing nature of the EU's collective approach to migration".

"The commission firmly disagrees that relocation has been ineffective," Margaritis Schinas added.

He tried to downplay the controversy by saying "there is no quarrel, there is no brawl" between the two institutions.

"I don't think the commission plays a constructive role here, we need to move together towards a consensus, and his [Avramopoulos] remarks did not signal that," a senior EU diplomat said, however.

Leaders' group therapy

Tusk's note also raised the question of whether the European Council president is overstepping his role as facilitator of consensus by engaging in making proposals, a job reserved for the EU commission in the bloc's political and institutional balance.

In October, the Council president came up with the idea of a so-called Leaders' Agenda, and set up a new working method and a decision calendar for EU leaders.

The document, which was adopted by EU leaders in October, aims at the leaders informally discussing issues that have been stuck unresolved in the bloc's legislative process to achieve a consensus.

An EU source, however, said Tusk was "not imposing any role" in this process, but only wants to spur debate by "asking difficult quesitons".

"This entire controversy is very much intentional in a way, this is what the Leaders' Agenda is about, to have an honest, political discussion on controversial issues," the EU source added.

Some EU states warned this should not result in the European Council, the meeting of the leaders, legislating itself on EU policies.

"That is a change, which also means you have have to get use to that," an EU official said.

"It might be a bit more controversial, if you want to solve controversial and divisive issues, you can either hide and wait or you can tackle them," the official said.

"The European Council president has shown support for the second option, and some might not like it," he added.

Hysterical and clumsy

While some EU diplomats described Tusk's migration note as "clumsy", "not neutral", Avramopoulos' reaction was described as "hysterical" and "unhelpful".

The dividing lines among EU countries over Tusk's phrasing can be traced back to which member states thinks what of the migration quotas.

Supporters of relocation felt a "bit of a blow" reading the note, while Visegrad countries - including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland - felt that finally their objection had received the deserved attention.

Some diplomats have said that it is actually Tusk's proactive approach that could avoid the schism that happened in 2015, when Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were voted down on the emergency relocation scheme.

They argue that the sooner all diverging positions are taken seriously, the better.

"Even though the Tusk note was controversial, it is high time to put on the table alternative views," the senior EU source said. "In a certain sense it is rebalancing the approach of the commission," the source added.

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