Migration divides European Union

Austria refugee stance could be crucial

The European Union is struggling to reform its policies on migration. The mid-December European Council meeting in Brussels vividly illustrated the conundrum. Even by Brussels standards the meeting was complicated. The agenda was loaded with two troublesome issues: economic and monetary union, and migration – and migration is by far the most controversial.

Since then, the question is high on the agenda in the drawn-out deliberations on forming a conservative-socialist German coalition government four months after inconclusive elections. Limiting asylum seekers through border controls and expulsion of illegal migrants is a crucial area of dissonance between the three parties attempting to assemble an alliance under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Highly ambitious language on a pre-coalition draft on 12 January spoke of a possible annual range of refugees of 180,000 to 220,000 – leaving open how this could be enforced.

In his 12 December message to European Council members, Donald Tusk, president of the Council, detonated a political bombshell by suggesting the EU should abandon mandatory quotas for admitting refugees. Quotas had proven ‘highly divisive’, attracted ‘disproportionate attention’ and been ‘ineffective’, Tusk wrote.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, attacked Tusk’s plan immediately, calling it ‘unacceptable’ and ‘anti-European’. Tusk was, he claimed, ‘undermining one of the main pillars of the European project: the principle of solidarity’.

The Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), long-time opponents of asylum quotas, reacted more subtly. On 14 December, a few hours before the Council meeting, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, announced the Visegrád Group was prepared to contribute €35m to finance an EU border control programme in Libya.

On 7 December the Commission had taken the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to the European Court of Justice for refusing to comply with the 2015 EU plan to relocate 160,000 refugees to ease the burden on Italy and Greece. The three countries were supposed to accommodate 8,000 refugees between them. But Hungary and Poland had taken none at all, while the Czech Republic had accepted just 12.

The Visegrád Group’s initiative was a ploy to drum up support for Tusk’s proposal before the Council’s discussion had started. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, immediately rejected Orbán’s offer as ‘shameless’. Rutte accused Orbán of ‘attempting to buy off his obligations’.

The migration discussion when the Council meeting got under way was ‘tempestuous’ and made little headway, according to participants. A formal discussion on quotas is not scheduled until June.

Everyone agreed that the EU needs a financial instrument dedicated to stemming illegal immigration, part of the next multiannual financial framework, under discussion in February.

On reforming the Dublin Regulation, which sets down EU law on asylum seekers, including the issue of mandatory quotas, Tusk reported agreement ‘that relocation is not the answer to illegal immigration’.

‘Mandatory quotas remain a contentious issue. Will a compromise be possible? It appears very hard. But we have to try our very best,’ he said. In February, he predicts, there will be a ‘financial instrument’. In March there will be ‘progress’. And in June there will be ‘decisions’.

The approach of the new Austrian government, an alliance between the traditional People’s party and the populist Freedom party, could be crucial regarding migration and other key areas such as reinforcing euro area integration. On Christmas Eve, Sebastian Kurz, the new Austrian chancellor, announced that Austria, too, would oppose mandatory quotas. The subject represents an intractable maze for EU countries – and no one is sure whether they can find a way out.

Paul van Seters is a Professor of Law at Tilburg University and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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