Addressing the politics but not the problem: The latest EU response to the migrant crisis

At German chancellor Angela Merkel’s request, ten EU leaders gathered on 28th June for an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss the crisis of migration in Europe. Carys Whomsley explores the feasibility of the terms of the deal, and their reception.

With illegal border crossings down 95% from their 2015 peak, dropping to just under 50,000 in the first half of this year, international media were sceptical over the reasons for the meeting, which was severely delayed as a response to a crisis that emerged in 2015. The summit was almost universally painted as a crisis motivated by internal EU politics. In the weeks leading up to the summit, Merkel’s government faced a serious test as factions within the governing coalition threatened outright rebellion if the German leader did not toughen her stance on migration. These factions, in turn, were driven by an anxiety over losing further votes to the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, whose anti-immigration campaign garnered significant support in Germany’s 2017 federal elections. On 18th June, Merkel’s coalition allies agreed to give her two weeks to develop a new approach to migration.

In the run-up to the summit, the German priorities chafed the new Italian leadership, who reacted furiously to a draft prepared by the European Commission prior to the summit. Italy’s populist government, led by Giuseppe Conte, threatened to veto any deal which did not prioritise longstanding Italian demands for reducing migration into Italy. Meanwhile, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia boycotted the talks, citing objections to previous EU migration policy suggestions such as migrant quotas.

At the summit, the gathered EU leaders reached a deal shortly before dawn. The broad terms of the deal centred on:

  • the tightening of external and internal border controls, including increased cooperation with Libya in the Mediterranean;
  • EUR 500 million of additional development funding to Africa;
  • the establishment of official “controlled centres” in the EU and “processing centres” beyond its borders, intended to assess the validity of asylum claims.

The summit was hailed as a success by EU leaders. Merkel, however, was cautious in her optimism, noting thatEurope_Merkle

“we still have a lot of work to do to bridge the different views”.

Responses and potential impact

The agreement was poorly received by the international press and human rights groups alike. Criticism focused broadly on two aspects: the impracticality of the proposed measures, and potential human rights issues.

Unachievable ideas

To a large extent, the agreement appears to have been designed as a “one size fits all” solution to a deeply divisive issue, targeted at internal political divisions, with little consideration afforded to the realities of the crisis; this was widely reflected in responses to the announcement by think tanks and news publications. The EU’s approach has resulted in proposed measures that are largely impractical under present conditions in both the EU and northern Africa.

Central to the criticisms was the proposed creation of “controlled centres” within the EU, and “processing centres” outside of the EU, for the purposes of sorting legitimate refugees from “illegal migrants”.

Controlled centres are unlikely to be developed. Hosting such centres was made voluntary to appease border countries; in addition, transfer of migrants from their country of arrival to other countries within the EU also remains dependant on the voluntary participation of the receiving country. The centres are to be financed collectively by the EU, but in spite of these compromises, no country has offered to host one of the centres.

Plans to build processing centres in northern Africa are more unlikely still to reach fruition. Tunisia, Libya and Morocco have already refused to host centres. Political commentators in the region have also suggested that the EU has failed to build the trust required to set up resettlement schemes in North Africa.

Problems in the Mediterranean

The agreement also prompted significant criticism by NGOs who coordinate rescue operations for migrant crossings in the Mediterranean. The agreement calls for increased cooperation with the Libyan coastguard, despite accusations of grave human rights abuses by the latter. Humanitarian NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has issued a statement warning that the proposed migration policies condemn people either to death at sea or to renewed incarceration in Libyan detention centres, where they are subject to severe violence and inhumane conditions. MSF reports that the EU’s proposals have effectively blocked NGO search and rescue operations, and have turned over the responsibility for rescues to the Libyan government, equipping the coastguard to intercept boats and return the passengers to Libya.

Ships operating in the Mediterranean, including commercial vessels, remain responsible under international maritime law, namely the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), for responding to distress signals. Increased support in the EU agreement for the Libyan coastguard, including demands that other rescue vessels should not obstruct coastguard operations, may now affect the nature of the support available to commercial vessels providing assistance to vessels in distress.

S-RM’s consultants are currently advising operators who have found themselves involved on several migrant rescue operations as a by-product of their shipping activities in the Mediterranean; we have worked on several high-profile cases as part of wider consulting and security engagements. Issues affecting shipping operators include taking correct action in accordance with SOLAS, addressing immediate concerns regarding the individuals being rescued and their treatment, and potential support that may be required by the operators’ employees, for example screening for post traumatic stress disorder, as well as the effect on wider corporate operations and schedules.

More work needed

Although illegal border crossings have decreased to an all-time low since the beginning of the crisis, political divisions within and between EU countries continue to grow. Yet, as reflected by the vague terms of the agreement, drawn from the narrowing common ground between EU leaders, the summit only papered over these divisions. With talks over the deal set to resume towards the end of the year, there is considerable work to be done to establish a practical solution to both the migrant and political crises plaguing current EU leaders. Whether a resolution to these is possible before the European Parliament elections in 2019 remains to be seen.

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Bill Laurence, Director, S-RM Crisis Management
Bill Laurence, Director, S-RM Crisis Management