Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

Migration looms over summit, as Africa pledges fall short

  • EU bickering over migration leaves asylum seekers in the dark. (Photo: Agostino Loffredi/Oxfam)

Italy will hold meetings with the 'Visegrad Four' group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia as disagreements over migration loom over the EU summit in Brussels.

Italy's prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, plus European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, will discuss the controversial concept of EU 'solidarity' on migration with the four central and eastern European states on Thursday (14 December).

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The meeting, demanded by Hungary, is also aimed at shoring up member state pledges for the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

Italy, which is spearheading an EU migrant containment policy in Libya, has contributed over €100 million to the fund, compared with just €50,000 each from Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Slovenia.

The Visegrad Four have objected to taking in asylum seekers themselves, and prefer offshoring the problem by preventing people from coming to Europe in the first place, and further securing their own borders.

A press conference was meant to follow the joint meeting on Thursday but has reportedly been cancelled, according to one EU diplomat.

Instead, the issue of requiring member states to distribute a quota of asylum seekers from initial arrival hotspots like Italy and Greece are likely to cast a long shadow over the summit itself.

On Wednesday (13 December), the commission said any effort to drop the mandatory quotas, as suggested by the European Council president Donald Tusk, "would betray years worth of collective work".

EU commissioner migration Dimitris Avramopoulos had in Strasbourg on Tuesday labeled Tusk's plan to drop the quotas as "anti-European," which ranks as a serious insult at the EU institutional level.

One EU government official described the insult as unwarranted.

"His [Tusk] note has really sparked a very lively discussion but it is difficult to understand that the mere fact of presenting a note could or should justify calling him anti-European," said the source.

Another described Avramopoulos' remarks as a "hysterical rant", noting that the commissioner will not take any part in the summit discussions.

"This is a question of manners," said the source.

'No quarrel, no brawl'

But chief EU commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas attempted to downplay Wednesday's spat between Tusk and Avramopoulos, telling reporters that there "is no quarrel, there is no brawl" and not to dramatise the issue.

He also noted that Tusk had failed to mention broader issues on the passport-free Schengen area given the steady rise of internal border checks.

Schengen states introduced border checks 36 times between 2006 to 2015. Over the past two years, that rose to 50 times, in part to prevent migrants from travelling across Europe.

Tusk has since modified the wording, some reportedly by his own hand, on migration in a note addressed to the EU leaders ahead of tomorrow's summit in Brussels - but still maintains that mandatory quotas are both "highly divisive" and "ineffective".

The commission disputes the wording, noting that 32,000 asylum seekers were relocated over a two-year scheme. However, it has also resulted in legal battles against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for having refused to participate.

The commission wants to continue the mandatory scheme as part of a broader asylum reform, under the Dublin regulation that determines who is responsible for processing claims for international protection.

Forcing a vote on solidarity

But some EU officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say the idea of such a permanent mechanism would only act as a pull factor for people already ready to risk their lives to reach Europe.

Others, largely backed by Germany, maintain that a obligatory distribution scheme is needed to help spread genuine asylum seekers across member states.

A paper floated by the Estonian EU presidency on how to achieve a consensus on the issue had also been welcomed by Germany's interior minister.

The paper will not be discussed given that EU summit leaders on Thursday will not take any decision on the matter until the end of June 2018.

But that also poses other questions, which remain answered.

The EU is hoping for a consensus to avoid a repeat of the debacle behind a majority vote that originally launched the two-year asylum relocation scheme in 2015.

The scheme was forced through by a qualified majority vote (QMV), which made relocation legally binding among all participating EU states.

"QMV is still an option legally, it is sensitive issue, there is a strong political will but we should find a solution on the basis of consensus," said another EU official.

Commission takes Orban's Hungary to court

The EU executive steps up several probes over Hungary's illiberal tendencies, while it is also suing Poland and the Czech Republic over migrant quotas.

Tusk: EU migrant quotas have 'no future'

EU Council chief said obligatory migrant quotas unlikely to be renewed, but warned of "consequences" for EU states that break solidarity.

EU asylum debate reopens old wounds

EU leaders discussed asylum reforms in an effort to reach a consensus by next June, but divisions remain wide as concept of 'solidarity' becomes ever more elusive.

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