It would be unfair to criticize the European Union for its handling of the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the second World War, if the EU wasn’t making it all even worse by attempting to use the crisis to grab power. Digging up plans prepared long before, the European Commission is pushing to harmonise asylum procedures, something still relatively innocent, while it also tries to force unwilling member states to welcome refugees.
On Tuesday, at the meeting of EU interior ministers, something unprecedented happened. At the instigation of the European Commission and Germany, a majority of member states decided to override opposition coming from four Central- and Eastern European countries (Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania) and to decide to “relocate” 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to the other member states, also to these opposed to it.
The result is threefold:
- No redistribution of refugees: People will be told to move to a country which doesn’t want to welcome them and where they don’t necessarily want to go. More importantly, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are within the passport-free Schengen-zone, so there are almost no checks possible that people will actually stay there. It would be like telling people they can only reside in Manchester and cannot move to London. In short: this mechanism, which the EU Commission wants to make permanent, will not succeed in its purpose to “redistribute the burden”.
- Anger among EU countries: What this measure has succeeded in already is to create resentment against the EU and against Germany, the driver of this idea. Jiří Pospíšil, a former Czech Justice Minister and MEP with the pro-EU TOP09 party described the result as “a great defeat for Europe” which would facilitate the rise of anti-EU sentiment. I was told by a French journalist that during the previous meeting of interior ministers, France’s Bernard Cazeneuve was able to stop German interior minister Thomas de Maizière from demanding a vote. At the next occasion, it wasn’t possible to stop Germany from damaging good relations with their Eastern neighbours.
- Short term gains for certain politicians: One thing the decision may do is to prop up German Chancellor Merkel’s approval ratings, which for the first time this year have been hit, largely as a result of the refugee crisis and the decision to bail out Greece. She desperately needed something from deflecting attention from the backlash within Germany against her policy.
Even if she may be right that Eastern Europe could show a bit more solidarity, Angela Merkel should really do some deep soul searching whether it was wise to antagonize these countries and to enable anti-EU sentiment there only to push through a proposal which in effect won’t make any difference in reality anyway.
Many have criticized the UK, which enjoys a Treaty opt-out from having to participate in this EU scheme, for not doing enough to help Syrian refugees. This overlooks that the country has spent 40% more for refugee camps in the Middle East than Germany and much more than France, Italy and Spain.
Discussing how to redistribute refugees which already are in the – supposedly safe – EU really is about helping overburdened European countries. If one wants to help refugees, it’s better to do what the UK does: to welcome 20.000 people from refugee camps in the region. Rather than strengthening the EU’s powers, this episode should instead be a reminder why the attempts of the UK government to reform the EU are worth pursuing. This agenda may now perhaps receive a bit more sympathy in Eastern Europe.
As I have made clear in another comment piece, the solution isn’t to abolish the passport-free Schengenzone either, given that most irregular migrants still arrive legally. Also abolishing the so-called Dublin Regulation on asylum, which requires people seeking refuge in Europe to do so in the first country where they set foot is a bad idea. It would actually mean the end of Schengen, given that France or Germany would demand the right to permanent border checks, if Italy would be allowed to provide all migrants free passage.
Migration is a massive challenge, which is now complicated by the wars in Syria and Iraq. The best thing the EU can do is not to divert some of the damage to itself by trying to grab more powers on the back of the crisis.
For extraordinary crises, one needs an extraordinary solution. I have proposed to create “free havens” outside of the EU, where refugees could go voluntarily and where officials from richer countries would safeguard law and order to allow an economy to develop. Multinationals may prefer to host their expensive production plants in these zones, run by officials of countries with a high level of rule of law, over unstable places like Ethiopia or Pakistan.
Unrealistic? Less than one would think. Here are three developments which show why:
- Guarding the sea border will prove only realistic if there is a deal with a “third country”:
The only way to guard the EU’s external sea border is to pursue the Australian approach: drag any boat trying to enter illegally to a third country. To do this, Australia has closed a deal with Papua New Guinea . The EU has no such deal with any third country. It can choose between pushing back migrants to unsafe countries (or countries unwilling to take them back, like Turkey) or bringing them into the EU. It rightly has chosen to save the lives of thousands of vulnerable people, but as an unintended consequence, it thereby operates as a ferry for migrants keen to cross the Mediterranean , effectively serving the interests of human smugglers.
Since Australia’s policy was implemented, there has been criticism of the conditions in the refugee camps but only a limited number of boats have tried to make the journey to Australia and no deaths have been reported. This means the policy deserves to be considered. It’s possible to learn from Australia’s success in avoiding drownings while not repeating its mistake of providing bad conditions to live.
- Trying to offer a positive alternative for refugees will only work if it’s something resembling a developed country:
EU countries have just agreed to implement “a medium-term strategy … aimed at developing safe and sustainable reception capacities in the affected regions and providing lasting prospects and adequate procedures for refugees and their families until return to their country of origin is possible”, effectively taking over a proposal from the Dutch government. Dutch PM Mark Rutte has specified that he wants “UNHCR-plus” refugee zones in the Middle East, which he thinks should also include access to education and employment for migrants. A document from his government outlines Dutch plans in more detail, stating that “staying in refugee camps without prospects (…) must be replaced by reception in important transit countries in safe and adequately equipped host communities of a more structural manner. To set up such semi-permanent facilities is necessary and at the same time sensitive and complex to execute in practice. Considerable efforts and cooperation of the third countries involved are therefore needed, but these are conditions which the EU and its member states can help create, through aid and direct economic investment in infrastructure and companies”.
The Dutch idea, which has been approved by EU countries in principle, isn’t so far off from establishing a free haven. It even mentions how companies should be attracted, which is key. The whole idea behind this is to make sure refugees have a positive incentive not to move to Europe, given that they can develop their lives somewhere else. The modest way – providing refugee camps with more funds – is likely to fail to convince people to stay away. In order to make sure that refugee camps in Turkey would turn into functioning cities, one needs proper rule of law and outside investment.
EU countries have also decided to create so-called “hotspots” or “Migration Management Support Teams” in Italy and Greece, where refugees would be registered. Italy already opened one on the island of Lampedusa. Greek and Italian officials are now however concerned these would turn into sprawling refugee camps, indicating that large-scale refugee reception inside the EU’s border is a pipe dream.
- The direct cost of welcoming refugees in Europe is on the rise:
Refugees may well contribute to the economy on the longer term, but on the short term there is a cost. The cost to Germany of accepting up to 1 million refugees is estimated at 25 billion euros over two years only, eating away part of its current 21 billion euros budget surplus. The German government has already announced to drop plans to cut the income tax as a result of the cost of the refugee crisis. Some want EU countries to pay billions to African countries to take back migrants, while European Parliament president Martin Schulz has called for 7 billion euro to provide to countries in the Middle East to cope with refugee reception.
The point here is that large-scale investments are being made anyway, so why waste them on imperfect border control which encourages migrants to take bigger risks and on refugee camps which have no hope of ever turning self-reliant and where people will only grow more frustrated? The Belgian police and justice system costs around 3 billion euro per year, to serve 11 million people. No extra taxes need to be raised for an investment-friendly “free haven” for refugees outside of Europe with the rule of law. The EU’s 130 billion euro budget offers a lot of opportunities. More than 270 billion euros are still being sent to agricultural land owners, including the Queen of England, between 2014 and 2020. I doubt whether European tax payers would mind using some of this cash to create a city outside of Europe for refugees…
In any case, Turkey is unlikely to agree to allow people to stay semi-permanently. It has already proposed that some of its almost 2 million refugees could go back to Syria, after a no-fly zone would have secured a safe area for them, something not very realistic either, sadly.
Events are pushing policy makers to providing permanent settlement for the millions on the run. If you want to help refugees, but you can’t or don’t want to help them within Europe, you need to help them outside of Europe.
Proposals similar to “free havens” have been made by US business man Jason Buzi, who wants to give refugees their own “Refugee Nation” and Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, the 10th richest man in Africa, who has offered to buy an island off Italy or Greece in order to rehouse hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other conflicts.
Turkey may not be keen, but the EU already had some success convincing Niger to host a number of “temporary” reception centers in Niger. These will be launched this year as a pilot project. France and Germany support opening similar centres in Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon, so perhaps they may consider more ambitious proposals later. Even if at first instance a refugee zone would be created in, say, Morocco, which may be happy to receive compensation, the EU could as well send police and justice personnel there, similar to what it has already done in Kosovo.
The EU’s attempts to grab power on the back of the crisis and to disrespect the outcome of national democracy in Eastern Europe must be condemned, but its embryonic decision to try to provide better conditions for refugees in the region where they come from must be applauded. If the refugee and migrant crisis escalates, perhaps more ambitious solutions similar to the one I described may be attempted.