Wednesday

6th Jul 2022

Opinion

Merkel, Orban and the not quite closed Balkan route

  • Migrants in Hungary in 2015. The EU's crisis mode unnecessarily turned a serious political challenge into an existential crisis and gave Orban unprecedented political leverage. (Photo: icrc.org)

The European Council is holding a summit this week (22-23 June) to discuss, amongst other things, the EU's migration policy.

It will be the first summit after the European Commission decided to initiate infringement procedures against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, for their refusal to meet their obligations under the September 2015 refugee relocation scheme.

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The commission’s decision, however legally correct, is nevertheless politically tone-deaf for two reasons.

First, whatever the outcome, the relocation scheme is set to end in three months. Given the length of the procedure and that almost all other member states also dramatically under-perform in meeting their obligations, the scheme will ultimately end in failure.

Second, while the relocation scheme symbolised the deep division among EU member states over the management of the 2015-16 European refugee crisis, it is now merely a remnant of the recent past.

Since the conclusion of the EU-Turkey refugee deal and the official closure of the Balkan route in March 2016, the EU has long since moved beyond past internal divisions – though not to the benefit of the bloc.

Nothing demonstrates this fact better than the fate of the Balkan route since March 2016, as a recent report by the Democratization Policy Council for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation revealed.

The combination of the closing of the Macedonian-Greek border and the agreement on the EU-Turkey deal did not result in the closure of the Balkan route. Instead, entry onto the route shifted primarily from the Aegean to the Turkish-Bulgarian land border.

Moreover, professional smugglers once again facilitated the transit of asylum seekers’ through the Balkans. The result is that tens of thousands of migrants still annually enter onto the Balkan route.

To achieve a real closure, the EU member states located on the route – Bulgaria at its southern entry, Hungary and Croatia at its northern exit – opted for the systematic violation of human rights (violent push backs) and the de facto suspension of domestic asylum laws, and European and international human and refugee rights conventions.

This policy has been more consistently and successfully practised by Hungary at the northern exit of the route, creating a bottleneck in the Western Balkan countries caught in-between – for instance, Macedonia and especially Serbia, where thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded.

This development has effectively forced these two EU candidate countries to adopt the illegal policies of their EU neighbours, thereby undermining the rule of law and democracy in a region that is still highly unstable.

The EU institutions and the other member states not located on the Balkan route have reacted to these developments with feigned ignorance, amounting to a tacit agreement. This is reflected in the new joint EU asylum policy, which has emerged since the end of the refugee crisis.

In the absence of any agreement among member states over managing the reception of asylum seekers within the EU, the lowest common denominator among them is to keep as many away from EU territory as possible, while aiming to reduce drivers for EU disunity and ease populist pressure within many member states.

Welcome culture?

German chancellor Angela Merkel has come a long way since the summer of 2015 when she was the chancellor of the German “welcome culture”.

She now tacitly sides with the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, in a policy of the lowest common denominator – his basic concept for reformulating the EU into an illiberal union of sovereign states.

There has been a misreading of the decade of Merkel’s reactive EU leadership in times of crisis.

This is evident in the misinterpretation of her famous statement “Wir schaffen das,” regularly translated (wrongly) as “we can do it” – a misunderstanding that projected her as the new leader of the liberal West.

Yet, while Merkel’s deep belief in liberal democratic values was shaped by her East German background, her leadership style and policies have never primarily been defined by her personal conviction.

Merkel is neither a visionary nor a strategist, but rather a policy manager.

In the absence of political leadership across the board in the EU, Merkel’s remarkable managerial skills enabled her to successfully navigate the EU through the euro crisis.

She developed a standard approach – belated, reactive leadership and a coalition of willing member states. What she had in fact meant back in 2015 was “we can manage it” – a purely managerial statement.

Symbolic failure

Yet with the refugee crisis, her carefully, if narrowly, constructed approach hit a wall, and ultimately collapsed – symbolised by the failure of the relocation scheme.

It failed because Berlin had long refused to consider asylum policy and burden-sharing as a shared EU responsibility, as Orban did. This was the case until hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived at the German border.

Merkel’s late and reactive response left her for the first time with insufficient leverage vis-à-vis Orban and others, to transform her crisis leadership into a joint EU policy.

Since no agreement on such a joint refugee crisis management policy emerged, Merkel, the policy manager, shifted to what was possible to achieve.

For a decade, Merkel’s crisis management had embodied a political class in the EU – afraid of confronting the Union’s structural problems for fear that it would ultimately collapse on their watch if they did so.

But this approach incrementally eroded citizens’ trust in the EU, profoundly undermined the Union’s popular legitimacy and lent the political stage to populists.

The new tacit agreement on EU asylum policy post-refugee crisis is just a new, more dramatic version of that approach.

For the sake of maintaining any common EU policy, member states and the institutions are engaging in the destruction of the democratic and rule of law foundations of the EU. This is a highly self-destructive policy approach, the practical implications of which can be observed along the borders of the Balkan route.

It’s not because the refugee crisis was an intractable political issue and Orban such a strong political actor within the EU that a joint EU policy based on the Union’s democratic values and legal foundations was impossible – but quite the contrary.

It was this crisis mode that unnecessarily turned a serious political challenge for the EU into an existential crisis and gave Orban unprecedented political leverage.

It is thus high time for the EU leaders to abandon their crisis mode, take political responsibility and start confronting the Union’s structural problems.

If ever there was a window of opportunity in recent years to set a new course, it is now.

Bodo Weber is a Berlin-based Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council, an initiative promoting accountable democratisation policy worldwide.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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