Thursday

23rd Feb 2017

EU buries migration dispute for now

  • Migrants sent back from the Greek island of Lesbos. An EU official said the measure of success will be the rate of returns. (Photo: Reuters)

With the number of migrants entering Europe relatively under control and no real decision to be taken, EU officials and diplomats say this week's European Council summit "will not be a migration crisis summit". But divergences will be brewing around the table.

"We are slowly turning the corner," European Council president Donald Tusk said in his invitation letter to the summit.

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He pointed out that migrant arrivals in Greece were down 98 percent in September compared with last year, that they were at the same level on the central Mediterranean route as the two previous years, and that twice as many irregular migrants have been returned so far this year as in 2015.

Discussions on the issue are now "less confrontational" than a few months ago, a diplomat said, because the situation is less pressing and all leaders agree that it is urgent to implement decisions already taken.

But that does not mean that differences have disappeared, and the summit could prefigure difficult discussions ahead.

"Very clearly, last year’s package doesn’t work," another diplomat said, adding than EU leaders had "a frank discussion" when 27 of them met in Bratislava in September.

"Many member states had a strong position and agreed that it would be better to have more flexible solutions," the diplomat said.

At the summit on Thursday, leaders will focus on border controls, a few days after the EU border and coast guard became operational.

They will call for "a swift adoption" of a revision of the Schengen borders code to enforce systematic controls, and will ask the European Commission to come up with a proposal on an entry/exit system before the end of the year, according to draft conclusions seen by EUobserver.

Absolute necessity

"Border control remains an absolute necessity. We'll return to a normal situation only if we restore full control of the external border," the first diplomat said.

Leaders will also discuss the so-called compacts set up with five African countries - Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Ethiopia - to manage the flows of migrants, increase returns and try to solve the "root causes" of migration.

The commission presented a first assessment on Tuesday but leaders will wait until December to decide if the plan works and whether to extend it to other countries.

"Most of member states will expect results in December," a top EU official said, adding that "at the end of the day, the measure of success will be the rate of returns" of migrants to their country of origin.

Some EU countries would already like to include new countries in the plan, like Egypt, Afghanistan or Pakistan. But the commission and other member states are more wary.

In their conclusions, leaders will call for "work to be continued" on the reform of the EU asylum system, the Dublin system, before they take a decision in December.

They will say that the reform will have to "apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity in the future", the code words that refer to the most acute controversy, over the relocation of asylum seekers to member states.

After several member states, notably Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, rejected a temporary relocation mechanism for 160,000 people last year, the commission proposed in April a permanent and mandatory system, with fines for recalcitrant countries.

Flexible solidarity

Faced with the failure of the temporary plan - about 4,500 people have been relocated in the first year - and more opposition, the commission's president Jean-Claude Juncker admitted in September that "solidarity cannot be forced".

But tensions continue to run high between leaders. While Hungary's Viktor Orban organised a referendum against the idea of relocation, Italy's Matteo Renzi said this week that the EU should open infraction procedures against countries that refuse to take migrants.

"We have solidarity, but we want to want to choose the way to do it," a diplomat from a reluctant country said. "We need reform on migration, but we don’t need reforms that don’t work."

The EU calendar put the asylum reform in the hands of Slovakia, one of the most critical countries, which holds the six-month rotating presidency.

Bratislava is expected to bring ideas forward soon, that will try to square the circle between the permanent and the voluntary aspects of solidarity.

The concept of "flexible solidarity" that Slovakia put forward in September with its partners from the Visegrad group – Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – could then be on the table, helping to revive their disagreements with the countries that have to deal with thousands of refugees.

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