Europe’s Migrant Problem Has an EU Answer

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s a testament to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s informal power in the European Union that the European Commission is willing to call an emergency mini-summit of national leaders to help her solve her political problems at home. 

The list of failed European migration initiatives is long. But it’s possible that the document proposed by the EU for the summit may contain the seeds of a workable solution to the actual problem, not just window-dressing. 

Merkel has until early July to come up with some sort of Europe-wide deal on what her coalition partners in Bavaria’s Christian Social Union party call “asylum tourism” – the widespread practice among asylum seekers of applying for protection in the first EU country they enter, such as Italy or Greece, and then coming to wealthier Germany to live. If she fails, CSU leader and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer threatens to start turning away such migrants at the German border, breaking European rules and undermining the EU’s passport-free Schengen area. Merkel opposes the move and could fire Seehofer, launching a government crisis.

So it’s European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to the rescue. He’s called an “informal working meeting” of national leaders for Sunday to discuss  common solutions. Reportedly, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Spain and Bulgaria (which holds the rotating EU presidency) have been invited. 

Given that migration is at the top of the agenda of a regular EU summit at the end of the month, such a meeting probably wouldn’t have been called for any other leader’s sake. Merkel, who has never shown any desire to lead Europe, is nevertheless an outsized figure. If she goes down, the current European construction will wobble under the blows of the competing nationalisms within it. 

Juncker’s agenda for the meeting is laid out in a draft statement that reiterates a number of measures already taken or planned by the EU and its members: agreements with African states to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe,  more maritime operations to turn back vessels and save those in distress, camps and resettlement options outside the EU, increasing the staff of the EU’s border agency, Frontex, to 10,000. Many of these measures are ethically questionable and only partly effective. As for the border force, at 10,000 it is at best a minor help in securing some 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of land border and 80,000 kilometers of maritime borders, including 34,109 kilometers in the Mediterranean where most of the current irregular migration occurs. The U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico plus the entire U.S. coastline add up to about 20,000 miles, less than the EU’s southern maritime border alone.

It should be clear to everyone involved that turning the EU into a fortress is economically unsustainable, even it it were physically possible. The Soviet Union, which was relatively successful at sealing some 60,000 kilometers of border (much of it, however, in the Arctic where no one ever tried to cross), had 220,000 border guards by the time it collapsed in 1991.

This makes it necessary to master the reception and sorting of immigrants, as well as their expulsion if they don’t fit legal requirements. Juncker’s draft statement has some clues on how that could be handled: The construction of “facilities to accommodate” asylum seekers, social assistance only in the first receiving country, a “solidarity mechanism" to ensure the redistribution of asylum seekers from the most heavily affected countries, ways to send people back to the countries where they applied for protection, sanctions for those who decide to move, outbound travel controls at bus and train stations, not just at airports. The EU also offers its European Asylum Support Office as the agency that could help maintain unified asylum standards for all member countries, something that is sorely lacking today.

Some of these measures – like the proposed “facilities” – might only make things worse. Detention, which could last for months depending on the complexity of an immigration case, is hardly a way to help the integration of those who get asylum. Only a few European countries – Hungary is the extreme example – use it for all asylum seekers, and spreading the practice would just lead to more inhumanity.

It does, however, make sense to detain those who would, for example, rather go to ground in Germany than wait out their application procedure in Italy. A resettlement scheme – only for the willing countries – would also help. Nations that take part in it should have clear incentives to join, though. Now, it’s a matter of political bargaining. For example, President Emmanuel Macron’s France could take some more asylum seekers in exchange for Merkel’s help in creating a common euro-zone budget. Merkel’s CSU critics suspect something like that is about to happen and accuse the chancellor of trying to “buy” France’s support. So instead, specific rewards should be offered to nations that agree to take on an extra social burden.

Some quick progress along these lines could appease Merkel’s conservative critics; rejecting such progress would make them look unreasonable, a capital sin in German politics. Any advances, however, would be difficult to achieve without Italy, the first entry country for thousands of asylum seekers. After initial indications that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte might not attend, he posted on Facebook that he had been convinced to go by Merkel’s assurances that “the draft text published yesterday will be cast aside.” He doesn’t want to be seen to be doing the EU’s or Germany’s bidding: The nationalist political forces behind his government are not intent on helping Merkel and are focused simply on keeping out as many immigrants as possible.

Domestic German and Italian politics have created unnecessary haste around the asylum issue. It can lead to an emphasis on ill-conceived policies, like the inefficient enhancement of border protection or the creation of detention centers under any name. That, in turn, could only make sure migration remains a political football for years to come. EU leaders have had several years to work out real solutions; it’s tempting to think they won’t do so now. Still, better thought-out solutions such as common asylum rules and procedures, including working deportation mechanisms for failed applicants and curbs on “asylum shopping,” are not outside their reach if the political will can be found. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.