Immigration issues are threatening to break apart the European migration system. After last week’s catastrophe where Spain stepped in at the eleventh hour to accept rescued migrants heading for Italy, Italy issued a new regulation denying non-profit ships carrying migrants from Africa the right to dock. Italy’s prime minister took a page from President Trump’s playbook by announcing his ongoing enforcement of this regulation while flanked by victims of migrants. Another 234 rescued migrants were then denied entrance to both Italy and Malta for days. Malta tweeted that it had “no responsibility,” but finally allowed the Danish rescue ship to dock after Italy agreed to take some of those rescued.
Why is immigration such a hot-button issue for Europe? Even though the number of migrants and refugees entering in 2018 is down substantially from prior years, 2015 posted record high numbers. Even under the best of circumstances, such a large influx raises significant challenges. But in addition to the economic burdens of integration which might be substantially offset by migrants’ contributions and a more equitable distribution of either migrants or resources across Europe, a serious political problem now plagues Europe as well. Much of the European public debate now focuses on whether large numbers of migrants will dilute the prevailing culture, though concerns about jobs, crime, national security, and social welfare policy have also played a part. Politicians across Europe have deliberately stoked rising nationalism and anti- immigrant sentiment—ranging from Britain’s hostile environment policy to Slovenia’s Slovenia First policy—to bolster their representation in government.
Is the immigration issue an existential threat to the European community? At the very least, it is a serious enough problem for Europe (and for Chancellor Merkel’s continued rule in Germany) that the European Commission called an unusual informal meeting on migration. Other regions with less formal governance structures, such as Southeast Asia, often use such meetings to try to reach non-binding agreements on immigration issues. The absence of transparency and more collaborative environment is thought to facilitate agreement where more formal environments for more formal documents might present an insurmountable hurdle.
Europe seemed to divide across three lines for the informal summit. Some of the countries with the strongest anti-immigrant sentiment, such as Hungary, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, opted out of the meeting entirely, declaring the proposals unacceptable. Italy offered an enormous overhaul—a ten-point plan that would replace the existing Dublin system. If accepted, it would definitively sever any obligation to process asylum requests from any rescue obligations and call on each European state to establish entry quotas for economic migrants with funding countermeasures from states that do not welcome refugees. In contrast, France and Spain called for European detention centers to review asylum applications with those that fail being returned to their home countries. While some countries seemed to be actively hoping to reach resolution—such as Ireland, with its commitment to accept 4,000 refugees as part of solidarity and burden sharing—the conference ended with no new agreements.
What does this mean for Europe? In the very short term, it means Chancellor Merkel went home empty-handed which may pose a problem for her coalition. All is certainly not lost for her, though, as optimists contend that Merkel faces no existential threat from anti-immigration foes and that Trump’s populist interventions during Europe’s crisis are helping to solidify her moderate pro-immigration stance. Moreover, she still has the full 28 EU heads of meeting tomorrow and Friday to try to placate her domestic constituency.
What kinds of reforms might we expect to see at the heads of state meeting? European Council President Donald Tusk has proposed reception centers outside of Europe, a/k/a disembarkation platforms, to allow European countries to determine asylum status of potential migrants before they enter an EU country. Denmark has offered a similar proposal along with an added Marshall Plan for Africa. Those eligible for asylum would be resettled by the UNHCR, while those ineligible would be returned to their home countries. Not only do these proposals present potential human rights concerns, but African nations have strongly objected.
In contrast, the United Nations will offer a plan for a regional disembarkation platform in Europe. Some European states seem sympathetic, though settling on which state or states are to host them, with Italy, Greece, and Spain as prominent contenders, may unravel what appears to be burgeoning consensus. While such platforms present less facial violations of human rights, implementation of similar centers in the status quo has been plagued with difficulties. Take, for example, the centers in Greece which began as open reception and registration centers, but were converted into automatic detention centers for asylum seekers and migrants. The facilities lacked “proper access to health care, sanitation, or legal aid.”
In the absence of full agreement across EU countries, Germany and other like-minded states may try to form an “axis of the willing” and make bilateral or multilateral side deals. What might such deals look like? The best guesses right now are that they will mirror the 2016 EU–Turkey deal. After the 2015 “open door” policy for refugees was adopted, over 800,000 asylum seekers entered Greece. This spurred the EU to offer a nice incentive package to Turkey to address the influx. Under the non-binding EU–Turkey statement, Europe committed to a swap structure under which it would resettle one Syrian for every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from Greece as well as provide three billion euros now and three billion euros in the future to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would prevent sea crossings from its shores, allow itself to be listed as a safe third country for refugees, and facilitate EU and UNHCR monitoring of those refugees returned to Turkey.
We will know in a few short days whether any of these proposals can gain any traction. But for those pessimists out there, we may be witnessing not just the dissolution of the Dublin migration system. The European project of solidarity and ever-increasing closeness may be dissolving as well. While I’m not a betting woman, the inability to reach an agreement may topple Chancellor Merkel and with it, the strongest current proponent for European integration.