(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If Sunday’s mini-summit of 16 European Union leaders, dedicated to migration, didn’t yield any immediate solutions, it clarified the most important divide to bridge and the immediate moves the EU will likely make before it can converge on a solution.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Brussels with the idea of making separate deals with southern European countries, in which most undocumented immigrants arrive, to stop the so-called secondary migration — the movement of asylum seekers from the first arrival countries to wealthier ones such as Germany. This is a hot political issue back home, where Merkel’s increasingly ornery coalition partners in Bavaria’s Christian Social Union party, led by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, want to turn such “asylum tourists” away at the border, breaking EU rules and disrupting the Schengen passport-free travel regime.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrived with a 10-point plan that claims secondary migration will fix itself if the EU minimizes the number of new arrivals and deals differently with the people who do get to Europe.
This is the current fault line in the discussions, and it is one between Conte’s long-term approach and the short-term one that Merkel is forced to take at least until Bavaria’s state election in October. Some sort of temporary compromise should emerge out of the regular EU summit later this week.
Conte’s plan is based on some faulty statistics. It claims that work with Libya and Niger has reduced departures across the Mediterranean by 80 percent this year. But, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 42,653 undocumented immigrants have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, compared with 172,301 for the whole of 2017, suggesting a reduction of about 50 percent. It also says “only 7 percent of migrants are refugees,” though 22.1 percent so far this year have come from war-ravaged Syria alone.
The plan, however, makes some rational, if not necessarily optimal, suggestions. The current situation — “rights are only recognized if people can reach Europe, no matter what the price” — is wrong, the plan claims. It calls for building “international protection centers” in transit countries outside Europe in cooperation with the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Presumably, Europe could accept refugees from them after vetting them, the way the U.S. does.
Conte also wants to “separate the safe port of disembarkation from the state responsible for processing the asylum applications.” It makes sense for Italy, Greece and Spain to receive the immigrants lest they drown, but why should they also receive all the asylum claims? Conte calls for reception centers to be set up throughout Europe. And while nations should be free to set their own quotas for economic immigrants, those refusing to accept refugees should face economic disincentives.
Building “international protection centers” is easier said than done. According to the UNHCR, 1.3 million people in Libya alone need humanitarian assistance. Hundreds of thousands of them are migrants or internally displaced people. Even Europe with all its wealth lacks the resources to build acceptable accommodation and processing facilities for that many people quickly. Keeping them in camps such as those that currently exist in Libya is not a humane option. Nor is paying various authoritarian regimes to keep people from departing for Europe. Both, however, appear to be strategies on which all European leaders agree, and they will likely be endorsed at the summit this week with increased financial commitments to such programs.
The onshore part of Conte’s proposals is more problematic. It’s perfectly reasonable to require all countries to build refugee reception facilities where people will be sent from Greece, Italy and Spain — and to impose financial penalties on those nations, such as the Eastern European ones, which refuse to do it. It also makes sense to have countries introduce separate quotas for economic immigrants while the EU sets refugee quotas according to countries’ size and wealth. Politically, however, agreeing about all this can turn into a never-ending debate.
This highlights the need for short-term solutions, which would also help Merkel in her domestic quandary. The European Commission, which organized Sunday’s meeting, recommends a few rule changes that would create disincentives for “asylum tourism.” These include allowing countries to withhold accommodation and financial benefits from asylum seekers registered elsewhere and imposing penalties on people who move around while their applications are pending. Regulations making this possible have been drafted and agreed upon among various EU bodies, and they too are likely to be adopted following the summit — especially if Italy gets some reassurance that its more sweeping proposals will also get some traction. Some bilateral arrangements may also be a convenient stop-gap.
The German domestic crisis will blow over as the Bavarian election comes and goes. But the EU migration framework will remain a patchwork of temporary measures and iffy deals with African regimes for some time to come. A major plan — whether or not based on Conte’s proposals — requires some quieter contemplation than is possible given the political tension over migration in too many European countries.
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