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7th Jun 2020

EUobserved

Migrants: EU commission not fit to guard treaties

  • The Hollywood-like optics were meant to convey strength by a European Union stung by its past failures on the geo-political stage. (Photo: European Union)

Almost 100 days into its mandate and this European Commission is no longer a credible guardian of the EU treaties.

When it comes to asylum, EU treaty articles based on the Geneva Convention allow people to seek international protection, as does the charter of fundamental rights.

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But the commission has turned its back on asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.

"Those who seek to test Europe's unity will be disappointed. We will hold the line and our unity will prevail," commission president Ursula von der Leyen, using terminology more apt for war, recently said at a photo-op trip on the Greek Turkish border.

Von der Leyen had gone to Greece along with the presidents of the European Council and the European Parliament after Turkey declared its borders with Greece and Bulgaria were open once again due to the war in Syria.

Carefully orchestrated photos and videos prepared by the EU's internal communications team portrayed the presidents staring at empty farmland from a helicopter portal.

The Hollywood-like optics were meant to convey an image of EU strength.

Within hours of the visit, the commission had granted an extra €700m to Greece, on top of some €2.4bn already doled out since 2016, and promised a rapid deployment of EU border guards and equipment to the country.

That Greece had suspended asylum claims for a month, despite condemnation by the United Nations, did not seem to matter.

That a four-year old Syrian boy died after a boat capsized on the way to the Greek islands a full day ahead of their visit was not mentioned.

At a staged press conference with the three presidents, journalists were even denied any questions as Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis dominated the narrative unchallenged.

"The border of Greece is also the external border of the European Union. We will protect them," he said to a round of applause in a seated crowd peppered by men in uniforms.

The aim was to avoid any repeat of what had happened five years ago when some one million people entered Greece, ventured up into the Western Balkans, and were waved through to the rest of the EU by Hungary's right-wing government.

Budapest at the time even organised buses to take the asylum seekers to Austria.

The following years saw internal EU disputes on migration that made a mockery of a Union that is supposed to bind 27 member states.

Ministry of truth

What happened after Von der Leyen's Greek-Turkish border visit was a demonstration of a European Commission that is now engaging in Orwellian double-speak as it skirts away questions on human rights.

It is also one where past EU failures on migration have forced this Brussels executive to borrow from the far-right handbook.

Having failed over the past few years to cobble together any credible plan on asylum, the EU is now prepared to bend its own and international rulebook on pushing back people who have the right to seek international protection.

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban will once again feel vindicated, as will Italy's former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

Orban, commenting on the recent Greek-Turkish border fiasco, said with gusto that it was Hungary that had "announced a policy against Muslim migration" already in 2015.

So what has happened to the European Commission?

It is worth recalling that Von der Leyen became commission president on the back of support from the right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary.

It is also worth recalling she had slapped the label "protecting our European way of life" onto an EU commissioner in charge of migration, largely seen as a head nod to right-wing factions.

This was later changed to "promoting" given the widespread backlash. But taken together, they were clues into what this commission is prepared to do.

Asked if it was legal for Greece to suspend asylum claims for a month as Greece has done, the commission announced it had no "authority to have a definitive legal opinion or legal doctrine."

Asked if it was legal to fire rubber bullets at asylum seekers, the commission also refused to comment.

"It is not up to the commission to offer any opinion or judgement on a situation which is exceptional, that is under certain constraints," said Margaritis Schinas, the vice-president in charge of "promoting our European way of life".

Eric Mamer, the commission's chief spokesperson, was even more blunt. "You won't get a straight yes or no answer from me," he said.

Instead, what you will get is a commission that has cowed to the far-right and one that is no longer fit to be the guardian of the EU treaties. That honour now belongs to EU citizens alone, it seems.

Analysis

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Commission silent on Greece suspending asylum claims

Greece is now "Europe's shield" said the European Commission, as it shores up border patrols on the Turkish border. But when it comes to Greece suspending asylum claims, the same institution was unable to comment.

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On 4 March, the European Commission's legal service handed president Ursula von der Leyen an analysis of the Greek government's controversial decision to temporarily freeze asylum applications. The commission will not now release the document.

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Hundreds of people who fled Libya have been stuck off the Maltese coast as the government in Valletta refuses to allow them to disembark. The European Commission is demanding EU states step in to help relocate them.

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