Split over migration policy dominates talk in EU Summit

Recent EU summit (14-15 December) was marked by bitter divisions over migration policy and refugee allocation quotas. On the one hand, European Council President Donald Tusk has described the quotas as “divisive” and an “ineffective” tool to stem the migration flow. On the other hand, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, whose country has struggled with managing large numbers of migrants and refugees, criticised Tusk’s comments as “aimless, ill-timed and pointless”.

Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are particularly opposed to a proposal from Donald Tusk to abandon the quotas. Specifically, German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said there “cannot be selective solidarity” among EU member states. We need solidarity not just in regulating and steering migration,” “but we also need internal solidarity.”

Three countries, namely Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – came out in favour of Tusk’s plan ahead of the summit. For instance, Poland’s new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said he was happy that Poland’s “opposition to allowing refugees into Europe seemed to be gaining acceptance.”

Furthermore, the Czech Republic’s new prime minister, Andrej Babiš, said any attempt to impose “nonsensical” quotas in a majority vote would only “widen the divisions in the EU.”

EU leaders agreed on compulsory quotas at the height of the migration crisis in 2015, despite the opposition from four central and eastern european countries. The bloc is currently discussing whether to make quotas a permanent feature of the EU’s asylum system. Under its proposal, countries that refuse to take part in a “corrective allocation mechanism” to take the pressure off member states bearing the brunt would have to pay a “solidarity contribution” of €250,000 per asylum seeker.

Reporting on the subject, the Guardian underlined how Poland and Hungary refused to take in a single refugee under the scheme, which aimed to relocate about 120,000 refugees, mainly Syrians. Moreover, the Czech Republic has only taken in 12. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been leading eastern opposition to letting refugees and migrants into the bloc, arguing the region would face “a security threat.” All three countries however, were recently referred to the European court of justice last week for failing to implement the policy, the usual procedure for “flouting” EU rules.

However, the four eastern European countries making up the so-called Visegrad group — the Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia — fully supported an EU project aimed at enhancing border protection in Libya, which has now become the principal launchpad for migrants and refugees wanting to come to Europe. As Germany’s public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports, they offered €35 million to assist the Italian-led project in a move meant to show how they are actively working on solutions to the migration issue.

Tusk’s scepticism about the prospect of consensus has been apparent for months. For instance, he noted in October that mandatory quotas had put members states in almost “permanent conflict.”

Tusk’s plans were set out in a letter sent to European leaders. Among key recommendations, he stressed that an effective European migration and asylum policy required stable and long-term financing mechanisms, as opposed to the current ad hoc pledging. He further underlined the need to establish long-term partnerships with neighbouring countries, as well as with other countries of transit and origin, adding that joint action could address smuggling and migratory pressures together.

The Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos dismissed Tusk’s claim that the relocation programme has been a failure. In this light, he noted that more than 32,000 refugees have been relocated to date, adding that this represents 90% of the pledges made. In addition, 26,000 of the most vulnerable refugees have been resettled in an EU member state, he continued.

From Tusk’s perspective, however, the mandatory quotas represent an obstacle to reach a deal on migration by June, which he argues “should focus on a permanent mechanism to finance migration crisis and also the reform of the so-called Dublin regulation on the management of asylum seekers.”

The Commission has further said that member states should be working towards a European approach. “Returning to a pre-crisis mode of isolated, uncoordinated, national action is not an option and would betray years’ worth of collective work to better the collective European response to managing migration.”

In its communication on 7 December, the Commission further detailed a “roadmap to a deal by June 2018 on the comprehensive migration package.” Among key proposals, the Commission underlined the need for “effective external border management system” specifically ensuring that Member States contribute to the assets and staff needed for the rapid reaction pools of the European Border and Coast. Furthermore, the Commission underlined the need to put in place a fully functioning return capacity in the European Border and Coast Guard Agency by March 2018 so “that the number of returned migrants in operations organised in cooperation with the Agency would increase by at least 20% compared to the same period of 2017 and increase by 50% by June 2018.”

The need to open sufficient legal pathways into Europe was further stressed in this Communication. “This requires Member States to pledge for the resettlement of at least 50 000 people in need of protection by February 2018, with 50% implemented by October 2018 and the remainder by May 2019.” The first pilot projects for coordinating legal economic migration offers for key partners countries should also be launched by May 2018, the Commission concluded.

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