Migration and the challenge to maintain European unity
The entry of immigrants to Serbia at the border crossing Miratovac, Macedonia (Credit: wabeno/Bigstock.com) (via: bit.ly)

The migration crisis in Europe has split the political elite not only across the EU, but also within individual European states. The discussion on migration policy heated the European agenda to extreme levels in late June 2018. The European Council meeting in Brussels on 28-29 June once again called for further measures to reduce illegal migration and prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015. It has become obvious that without the joint efforts of Member States in developing detailed and thorough migration policies, the integrity of the European Union might very well be challenged.

Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, stated that he does not want his country to be left alone to deal with the arrival of migrants to the European Union. Emmanuel Macron called Salvini’s position as ‘cynical and irresponsible’, the closure of Italian ports alone would not solve the problem. On 20 June 2018 authorities of Italy and Malta refused to accept 629 migrants stranded on the rescue ship Aquarius, so the vessel sailed to Spanish port of Valencia, where safe harbour was granted to its passengers.

Italy’s decision to turn away Aquarius was hailed by Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Hungary recently passed a law that criminalises “promoting and supporting illegal migration”, essentially banning individuals and organisations from providing any kind of assistance to undocumented immigrants. President Donald Trump sympathises with Orbán’s position. According to Hungary Today “they spoke about the importance of border protection and agreed that a country that cannot defend its own borders is no longer a country”. Hungary is infamous in the EU for having built  ten-foot-high barbed wire electric fences that stretch along the border with Serbia and Croatia meant to keep illegal migrants out. To construct a wall on Mexican border is one of Trump’s ideas, so he is encouraging similar initiatives of like-minded politicians overseas.

Germany’s Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, resolutely intends to keep Germany closed and conservative. Chancellor Angela Merkel rejects the idea of closing borders for asylum seekers and supports the position that European law should prevail over national law. Similar to Macron’s position, Merkel’s opposition to closing borders is a reminder that the integrity of the EU is the most important common goal.

Tensions within German political circles reached the point where Seehofer offered to step down as interior minister and as leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), if Merkel would not consent to controls, which would turn some migrants back at the German-Austrian border. Seehofer did not resign though, and on 2 July 2018 Chancellor Merkel reached a compromise with him, ending a bitter standoff over immigration, at least for the time being. The details of the deal, reported by Deutsche Welle, involves a ’new border regime” that will prevent asylum seekers from entering Germany whose “asylum procedures are the responsibility of other EU nations”. It also requires transit centers for migrants at the border. In cases where such agreements cannot be reached, the asylum seekers would nevertheless be rejected “on the basis of an agreement with the Republic of Austria”.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz supports the idea of an “axis of willing against illegal migration” with a possible triple alliance of Austria, Germany and Italy. The formation of an anti-illegal migration ‘axis’ between the core EU states could be built on the work of Visegrad group (V4: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) and might well be joined by Slovenia and Croatia. The V4 countries have been resistant to migration, and strongly opposed to EU quotas to take pressure off southern European countries. This might be regarded as a disturbing sign of profound tectonic fault lines forming in European space, threatening to undermine the integrity of Europe in the near future.

On 21 June 2018, Viktor Orbán gathered Prime Ministers of Visegrad group in Budapest: Peter Pellegrini of Slovakia, Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic, and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland. Chancellor Kurz also joined the meeting. The V4-plus-Austria Summit participants agreed that the European Union must be in a position to protect its external borders against migrants and ensure security for its citizens. At a joint international press conference after the summit, Orbán said that ties between members of the EU should be “characterised by cooperation rather than confrontation”, and that migration should be handled “with a focus on issues on which consensus can be reached”. Border protection and setting up refugee camps outside the EU were two such proposals, according to Orbán, adding that there was “no point in pushing issues” such as quotas when there is no agreement on them.

Such headlines as “Europe’s migration crisis: Could it finish the EU”? appear on BBC, as well as other media outlets. While there is still hope, the overall situation is nevertheless bleak. However, the results of a European Council meeting addressing the urgent issues of migration politics on 28-29 June 2018, were somewhat promising. The European Council called for further measures to reduce illegal migration and prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015.

The discussion on migration policy within European agenda reached extreme levels leading up to June 2018. “The migration crisis threatens to destroy the EU. We must not let it,” said President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani on 27 June. On 3 July, Chancellor Kurz warned that there will be a chain reaction if Germany closes its borders to stop the flow of asylum seekers. Austria must “assume its responsibilities” if it decides to close the Brenner Pass”[1], Italian Foreign Minister Enrico Moavero Milanesi said the same day. “The European Council affirmed that immigration is a European issue and we need a shared effort”, he stated. Responding to concerns of Italy being left alone with arriving migrants, EU leaders agreed that this was a challenge not only for a single EU country, but for Europe as a whole. EU leaders also agreed to share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea, a key point insisted upon by Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

EU leaders in particular supported the development of ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ for people saved at sea. Such platforms, which were proposed by UNHCR and IOM, should allow officials to rapidly and safely distinguish between economic migrants and asylum seekers.

Another development in overcoming the present migration crisis was the newly dedicated external migration management facility, which was called for by EU leaders to be included under the next long-term budget. A similar idea of screening for asylum admission in the vicinity of refugee-generating countries, rather than in the country of destination, was put forward at the Rhodes Forum 2017 panel ‘Social mobility and migration: Through the prism of values and cultures’ moderated by former director-general of the International Organization for Migration Brunson McKinley in October 2017.

European Council spokesperson, Preben Aamann, stated on 29 June that “The European Council reconfirms that a precondition for a functioning EU policy relies on a comprehensive approach to migration which combines more effective control of the EU’s external borders, increased external action and the internal aspects, in line with our principles and values”.

Another significant step, reflected in the Aamann’s statement, was made about building a consensus on the Dublin Regulation, to reform it following a balance of responsibility and solidarity. This is one of a few documents aside from the 1951 Refugee Convention that defines and regulates the status of refugees and asylum seekers. These documents seem outdated and need thorough revision to allow new legislative definitions and procedures to meet the challenges of ongoing migration crisis.

We see new alliances being created: Kurz-Seehofer, Merkel-Macron. The migration crisis fuels the separating forces inside the EU and is becoming hard to maintain the previous level of integrity. The conflict over migration policy, which seems to reflect the conflict between an ‘old’ and ‘new’ EU, has now transformed into a challenge to the very foundation of the EU. Whether Europe survives this crisis is uncertain, and depends on well-balanced, detailed, and carefully thought out policies. It has become obvious what Co-Founder of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute and former Secretary General of the Council of Europe (1999–2004), Walter Schwimmer, pointed out in his 2003 book The European Dream: European governments finally have remembered that the nature of migration dramatically changed a long time ago, and now it is high time to take joint actions.

[1] The Brenner Pass is a mountain pass through the Alps, which forms the border between Italy and Austria. It is one of the most important transit routes between Northern and Southern Europe.