Beyond the Beltway

Beyond the Beltway

Europe’s migration and asylum policy disintegrates before our eyes

The lucky ones: bound for Germany. Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Much of the conventional wisdom among academics over the last decade or so has focused on the convergent trends in European government policies toward both migrants and asylum seekers.

Spurred on by European Union’s legislation and the abandonment of internal borders, the concept of “one Europe” when it comes to migration, refugees and asylum seekers – at least within the confines of the Schengen zone of 26 of the 28 EU states – had become increasingly credible.

But recent events have formidably challenged that view.

A myth exposed

Over four million people have fled the war in Syria – hundreds of thousands of them hope to find safety and security in Europe.

The comments of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban last week, however, truly shredded the myth of “one Europe.”

Speaking as the Hungarian government denied access to over 2,000 people awaiting transportation northward from Budapest’s Keleti train station, Orban pronounced the issue a “German problem” rather than a European one.

His comment truly exposed the increasingly problematic claim that there is a single European migration or refugee policy.

Sure, there are agreed rules. But faced with the pressure to accommodate this unprecedented surge in volume, Europe has returned to a traditional formula: the search for national governmental solutions in dealing with a global problem. Each to their own or – as the old proverb goes – “the devil take the hindmost.”

Two common issues

The disintegration of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – from at least coherent political units into failed states – has posed two kinds of problems for Europe.

The first is an increasing security concern for Western European countries. Terrorism has become a more common issue on the streets of Europe’s capitals and, more recently, on its train system. The primary recent security focus has been on ISIS recruits returning to Europe, purportedly armed, trained and instructed to cause chaos.

The response of Europe’s governments to this problem has been to reassert their solidarity. As recently as June, they pledged their support for the European Commission’s counterterrorism strategy first created in 2005.

But the second issue has been the growing population flows of the people who are the innocent victims of the violence in the Middle East. And here the thin veneer of solidarity has been pierced as the agreed principles have effectively been ignored.

Providing some context helps understand why.

Europe has been besieged by a flow of migrants and refugees fleeing war and deprivation for which it is ill-prepared. The aggregate figures grow daily at an astonishing rate. Over 107,00 migrants reached the EU’s borders in July alone.

Greece, Italy and Malta have been at the front lines of the problem.

Indeed, as a major transit route and the main arrival point for migrants heading for the EU, Greece has been overwhelmed by more arrivals than any other EU country. More than 160,000 migrants and refugees have entered Greece as a whole so far this year, compared to 45,412 in 2014.

Refugees arrive by rubber dinghy in Lesbos, Greece. Dimitris Michalakis/Reuters

The Maltese and Italians, like the Greeks, have accepted people, but all three have repeatedly appealed for EU assistance.

Now Hungary has become the latest hotspot. But the Hungarian government, in contrast to the other three countries, has increasingly focused on a policy of denying them entry. Their latest efforts have included erecting a 175-kilometer (109-mile) fence and increasing the number of border guards in an effort to keep out migrants on its border with Serbia.

EU officials, like European Parliament President Martin Schultz and European Council President Donald Tusk, have called for a coordinated European policy in response. So have some major European leaders, notably Angela Merkel of Germany. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

No common response

Indeed, the members of the EU have spent months disputing how many refugees, migrants and asylum seekers each country should accept.

Germany and Sweden have moved ahead, accepting record numbers of immigrants. But German requests in the spring for a more equitable, mandatory distribution of those arriving were rebuffed. A voluntary one was established instead, with Britain opting out of the scheme completely. Not altogether surprisingly, those efforts had little positive effect.

Indeed, the proposed aggregate voluntary distribution figure of 40,000 in the spring was reduced to 32,500 in the summer. But more than 10 times that number has arrived at the EU’s borders so far this year, demonstrating the inadequacy of that response.

Pointedly, left to their own devices, members states have responded in markedly different ways.

German leadership

The Germans have resolutely demonstrated their willingness to accept refugees in percentages far beyond their proportion of the EU’s total population.

German officials have said they now expect up to 800,000 people to seek asylum there by the end of 2015. This compares with the 626,000 who arrived in all 28 EU states last year. In fact, about 83,000 people arrived in Germany seeking asylum in July alone. Another 50,000 arrived in the first half of August. And as we’ve seen in the last week, the flow of people has increased, not diminished.

Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, has insisted that the country will respond adequately in the face of this challenge. The government will work to process asylum applications faster, change procedures and increase accommodation for new arrivals.

A new heroine. Michael Dalder/Reuters

Indeed, this view is shared by all of Germany’s major political parties and the harassment of newly arrived migrants by fringe groups has been widely condemned with Merkel describing violent protests as “shameful” and “vile.” Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of the opposition Social Democrats declared that Germany can accommodate half a million asylum seekers for several years. Even right-wing tabloid Bild has weighed in to support this policy, only criticizing the government because it has not acted fast enough to assist refugees. Germany’s most vaunted soccer team, Bayern Munich, is setting up a training camp for arriving refugees.

Only Sweden has proportionately matched the German position.

The response of other major European countries has paled by comparison according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office. And, adding fuel to the fire, Hungarian Orban’s latest response has come in the form of fear-mongering about the prospect of his country was being “overrun” by refugees who threatened to undermine Europe’s Christian roots.

Other countries have proven only mildly better than the Hungarians. So far this summer, the British have focused most of their political energy on arguing with the French about the relatively few people who might get to Britain through the Eurostar’s Channel tunnel at Calais. Only this week did Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron belatedly pledge to accept 20,000 more Syrian refugees over the course of the next five years. And he insisted that they should be drawn from people still in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey rather than those who have already arrived on Europe’s shores to avoid favoring the wealthy who could afford to make the journey.

France accepted only 62,800 asylum seekers in 2014 (compared to more than 200,000 in Germany) and has so far only accepted 500 Syrian refugees this year.

Now French President Hollande is echoing Merkel’s sentiments in support of “a permanent and obligatory mechanism” to allocate migrants across the EU – and announced on Monday that his country would take in 24,000 asylum seekers over two years. Both the British and French pledges, of course, don’t come close to the German figures.

The Slovak government said they would accept only Christians, and in small numbers. The Poles have agreed to accept 2,000 refugees because they already host tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled that conflict.

Other Eastern European countries have refused to accept anyone. And the EU itself has pledged an emergency fund of US$2 billion for border control for African countries, intended to reduce the flow of people heading to Europe. So neither the numbers that these countries will accept nor the funds pledged will come close to addressing the problem.

The end of a common policy?

Germany, Britain and France have called for an emergency meeting on September 14 of European Union ministers to find solutions to the crisis.

One suggested proviso on the agenda is to scrap the Dublin Regulation that governs asylum policy altogether.

The key question is what will replace it?

The answer isn’t clear and the wheels of decision-making turn notoriously slowly when it comes to coordinated EU policy.

Meanwhile, the tumultuous numbers of desperate people on the EU’s borders is growing exponentially. For those familiar with the history of Europe, it is indeed a curious turn when Germany’s chancellor is the only humane voice in Europe, calling on each country to do only what “is morally and legally required” of them – and listening to the silence in response.