Sunday

17th Oct 2021

Analysis

EU 'migration summit': big on promises, short on detail

  • The agreement was 'the easiest part of the task,' European Council chief Donald Tusk said (Photo: Consilium)

Right after they reached an end-of-the-night agreement on migration on Friday morning (29 June), EU leaders hailed a compromise they said addressed all dimensions of the issue: external, internal and border protection.

But past the initial satisfaction of avoiding a political failure, the summit conclusions appear big on ideas and short on details, with old proposals rehashed, postponed internal asylum reforms, and vague new plans to create migrant centres within and outside the EU.

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  • Refugees in Greece, in 2015. The EU sees its agreement with Turkey to stem the number of arrivals as an example (Photo: Fotomovimiento)

"It is far too early to talk about a success," European Council president Donald Tusk noted on Friday.

He pointed out that the agreement was "in fact the easiest part of the task, compared to what awaits us on the ground, when we start implementing it."

On the so-called 'leaders' agenda' of putting the EU back on track after the financial, migration and Brexit crisis, the summit was billed to reach a political consensus on the reform of the Dublin regulation, which determines who is responsible for processing international applications for asylum.

But at the last minute, a political rebellion in Germany against chancellor Angela Merkel and threats by Italy's new government to stop taking migrants changed the meeting's focus.

EU leaders, in a compromise between those for and against another deadline, decided to review the progress of the asylum reform at their next summit in October.

Other issues, such as how long the country of first entry takes responsibility for the people that have been registered in it once they reach the European Union, also remain unresolved.

For some, the broken EU internal asylum machinery lays at the heart of the political impasse as people seek out EU states where they have a much greater chance of being granted international protection.

That asylum lottery is among the reasons why asylum seekers from Afghanistan go to Sweden or Germany rather than Bulgaria and why internal border checks are popping up.

Migrant centres - is it new and will it work?

The novelty of the summit appears to be the creation of so-called controlled centres in Europe, as part of larger plan to roll out 'regional disembarkation platforms' in north Africa and possibly elsewhere.

No north African state appears interested, yet Morocco is now being promised EU money given the recent upsurge of arrivals in Spain.

The European Commission also admitted not a single state in Africa had come forward. Tunisia, earlier this month, flat out rejected such ideas out of fears it would create a pull factor.

Leaders tasked their ministers and the European Commission "to swiftly explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms".

As for the controlled centres on a voluntary basis in EU, nobody has yet agreed to host such a facility. Nobody knows where they will be set up, what they will do, and how they will operate.

Macron's baby

French president Emmanuel Macron, the initiator of the plan, admitted that the agreement was "only a step forward" with more work ahead to implement it.

The premise remains basic. People in need of protection will get help, either through relocation within the EU or resettlement from outside the EU, while people considered as economic migrants will be returned home.

Such returns either require a readmission agreement with the help of a much bigger EU border agency Frontex, or special deals coordinated by the International Organization for Migration.

The EU is discussing readmission with Morocco but has yet to reach any agreement with any north African state.

The European Commission is set to expand the Frontex mandate, shore up border guards, and come forward with a new proposal on returns.

Merkel's 'European' response: bilateral pacts

Behind all the talks was Merkel's domestic situation and the pressure on the summit to hand her a "European solution".

Merkel's supposed Bavarian ally and interior minister Horst Seehofer, in his appeals to secure far-right voters in local elections in October, announced he would turn away asylum seekers with registered claims elsewhere.

It meant clamping down the German-Austrian border, while Merkel feared this could trigger the downfall of the Schengen passport free area.

Seehofer gave Merkel at two-week deadline to find a European solution to the issue.

She found her response in article 36 of the Dublin regulation, which says EU states can set up bilateral "administrative arrangements" to speed up take back requests of asylum applicants.

During the summit, Merkel was more busy trying to convince colleagues to agree to bilateral agreements than delving into the details of the broader agreement, sources said.

But for her, the controlled centres were a "missing piece in the puzzle" to reconcile calls for tightening EU's external borders and the need to keep internal borders open.

On Friday, she told reporters in Brussels that Greece and Spain were ready to accept returned asylum seekers and offered to send German border police to Slovenia and Bulgaria.

She said she would continue "to strive for bilateral agreements" and brief her coalition later in the day on a possible similar deal with Austria.

Old promises and new EU budget

Merkel also congratulated Turkey for its work on Syrian refugees. The country, under an increasingly authoritarian grip of president Erdogan, will now be receiving another €3bn for the so-called "facility for refugees in Turkey".

The money is part of a 2016 EU-Turkey agreement to stop refugees from leaving Turkey to Greece.

Leaders also agreed to transfer €500m from EU development to the EU Trust Fund for Africa, set up to tackle the root cause of migration.

The nearly €3bn fund is short €1.2bn and comes amid EU leader declarations to increase private investments in Africa.

It also demands a new fund under the EU budget talks over the next seven years that will stem irregular migration.

"This is an instrument dedicated, a facility which is dedicated exclusively to the problem of migration, to the issue of stemming the flows and it should be a part of the EU budget," an EU official told reporters earlier this week.

Visegrad victory?

The leaders of the Visegrad countries - Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Czech Republic - portrayed the summit's results as a victory.

Their aim was to make sure there would be no mandatory relocation, which they have been fiercely opposing since 2015.

On Friday, they agreed to the controlled centres in Europe - something they saw as a pull factor for migrants - but got guaranteed that resettlement or relocation would happen on a voluntary basis.

"There was a threat that from the controlled centres they will distribute the migrants across European countries. But we have fought back this proposal and our own proposal was accepted," Hungary's Viktor Orban said in a Facebook post.

"This clearly states that nobody can be moved to another country without the consent of the country from the refugee camps.  Hungary will not be an immigrant country, it will remain a Hungarian country," he added.

'Positions were at first irreconcilable, between an Italian political crisis, a german political crisis and a strong tension coming from the Visegrad countries," Macron pointed out. "We could move forward because we all made some concessions."

But the agreement will now have to stand the test of reality.

On Friday morning, far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini threatened again to leave Italian ports closed all summer, despite the agreement.

UN sets conditions for EU 'disembarkation platforms'

Countries in north African coast must first set up humane reception centres before the UN and the International Organization for Migration agree to any migrant camps, such as those being discussed by EU leaders.

EU migration talks hit Italian rock

As the EU summit opened in Brussels, positions were still apparently irreconcilable on how to deal with people trying to cross the Mediterranean sea, with the Italy's PM Giuseppe Conte threatening to veto conclusions.

German asylum row renews threat to unseat Merkel

Merkel's interior minister Horst Seehofer has threatened to resign over asylum. The bitter dispute risks tipping the historic balance between the centre-right CDU party and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU.

Ozil's resignation highlights Europe's identity debate

Mesut Ozil resigned from the German national squad after months of fierce criticism, as critics questioned his loyalty for posing with Turkey's Erdogan. His departure exposes a deeply divisive European debate.

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