EU leaders met in Brussels to reach an agreement on EU immigration policy on June 28. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, emerged from the meeting at 5am the next day to present a policy that she admitted was more of a draft than a breakthrough.
Between 2014 and 2017, almost 2 million migrants from Africa and the Middle East reached European shores. So far in 2018, the number is 45,000, an over 50 percent reduction compared to the same period in 2017 and 580 percent compared to 2016. But the problem is still significant for EU countries.
“The conclusions [at the Brussels summit] made it clear that there was agreement over language, but not policy. There is plenty of room for interpretation,” observed Susi Dennison, director of the European Power Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The main conclusions revolved around:
- Strengthening co-operation with and support of non-EU countries along migratory routes, such as Turkey and Libya, in hosting asylum-seekers.
- Disembarkation centres both inside and outside European borders to process asylum seekers.
- Increased support of Italy, Greece and Spain as countries of first entry.
- A €500 million tranche to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a scheme hoping to tackle the root causes of migration by supporting the development of African countries. The initial pledge was €3 billion.
President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, commented: “As regards our deal on migration, it is far too early to talk about a success.”
Dennison explained that “where these disembarkation units will be, who will help out Greece and Italy, was not determined. The situation will be changing every week over the summer,” as the 28 member states will work on bilateral deals on sharing refugees, financial support and asylum reform.
Merkel, whose acceptance of many refugees has caused backlash in the Bundestag, is making headway in this regard. She reportedly sent a letter to her government informing them of 14 deals with EU member states. At the meetings on the sidelines of the summit, she negotiated deals with Spain and Greece. These countries will be accepting asylum-seekers that were registered in their territory yet appear at the Austrian-German border. This treats the problem of secondary migration within the EU, which Merkel’s coalition partners have vehemently protested. The leader of her coalition partners the CSU, and Interior Minister of Germany, Horst Seehofer, might quit the government before he would abandon his anti-immigration stance.
Pressures from conservative voices have significantly influenced the debate over immigration. Tusk tweeted before the meeting:
Ahead of #EUCO: Some may think I am too tough in my proposals on migration. But trust me, if we don’t agree on them, then you will see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) June 28, 2018
According to Susi Dennison, “This is indicative of the extent to which EU leaders do not understand the depth of this crisis. We used to talk about the Visegrad group, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, who advocated for closing the European borders. There are discussions over reviewing the definition of asylum and the Dublin Accord, which were unheard of propositions before the crisis. In the past six months, this stance has gained power in many European countries. They now have a key player on their side, Italy.”
The new Italian prime minister, Guiseppe Conte, came to the meeting with an aggressive position, but had to face the powerful alliance between Germany and France, now joined by Spain. Between 2014 an 2017, over 600,000 migrants arrived in Italy, mostly from Africa. Whilst that is almost half of the 1.1 million who arrived in Greece, unlike the latter the numbers do not seem to be decreasing. Before the summit, Conte threatened to veto any agreement that did not include a mechanism for sharing the asylum-seekers. In the end, he accepted the deal which will allocate migrants on a “voluntary basis.”
“There is an underlying debate about what the EU is and where it is headed. Some leaders want to narrow the vision. It is interesting to watch how the immigration topic drives these decisions. What the deal will provide, at best, is a basis for continuing to muddle through immigration policy,” Dennison explained.