Merkel Engineers a Better Deal on Migration

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For all the premature political obituaries, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not lost her ability to hammer out compromises that please no one but somehow work for everyone. The European Union national leaders’ joint statement on migration, worked out in Brussels in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, reconciles the interests of countries with the most contradictory of positions – Germany, Italy and the eastern European nations – and does just enough to make further rebellion by Merkel’s Bavarian coalition partners look unreasonable.

Parties in the migration debate went into the EU summit on Friday with positions that appeared hard to bridge. Merkel needed agreement from countries where undocumented immigrants first show up in Europe, such as Greece, Italy, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Hungary, to take back asylum seekers who try to move to wealthier Germany while their cases are being considered. The intra-EU migration of potential refugees is a pet peeve of German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, whose Bavaria-based Christian Social Union is part of Merkel’s governing coalition. The CSU faces a tough election in October, and is trying to draw nationalist voters away from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

By contrast, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who presented his own European migration solution last Sunday, insisted that intra-EU migration would cease to be a problem once Europe agreed that the entry countries shouldn’t bear sole responsibility for the immigrants who land there after sailing across the Mediterranean from Africa. So far this year, Spain has received almost 18,000, Italy more than 16,000 and Greece 13,000; it’s only fair that the rest of Europe should help, Conte has argued. 

For their part, the Eastern Europeans, led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, insisted they shouldn’t be forced to accept refugees from other countries in the name of solidarity because it was an imposition on their sovereignty.

In the end, everyone got what they wanted, if not all they wanted.

Conte’s prize involved “controlled centers” set up in EU members states with “full EU support” to “distinguish between irregular migrants, who will be returned, and those in need of international protection, for whom the principle of solidarity would apply.” This is a rather specific promise to alleviate Italy’s financial and bureaucratic burden, which enabled Conte to say as he left the talks that Italy was “no longer alone.”

The Eastern Europeans made sure that the “controlled centers” would not be forced on any countries that don’t want them. The wording, clearly the result of much heated back-and-forth, is clumsy but unambiguous: “All the measures in the context of these controlled centers, including relocation and resettlement, will be on a voluntary basis.”

Merkel got the paragraph she needed, too. It states that “secondary movements of asylum seekers between member states” undermine the European asylum system and the Schengen borderless travel accord, so “member states should take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures to counter such movements and to closely cooperate amongst each other to that end.” 

That may appear unspecific at first sight, and the CSU was momentarily stumped. “We must happily confirm that the common European asylum policy is moving in the right direction,” Hans Michelbach, a member of the party’s leadership, said after learning of the Brussels statement. “The question is what it means for national borders and the admission of people now and in the next few months.”

Yet the statement means no unilateral action is needed; the prime ministers of Spain and Greece, who took a conciliatory stance in the talks, have already agreed informally to take back any of “their” asylum seekers found in Germany. Conte hasn’t quite said so, but he did sign off on the call for cooperation in stopping “secondary movements” in exchange for the “controlled center” promise.

The CSU should also consider the stance of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. With his firm stance on immigration, he is the Bavarians’ political idol, and the state’s prime minister, CSU member Markus Soeder, even invited him – and pointedly not Merkel – to help the party campaign ahead of the October election. But Kurz has clearly come out in favor of negotiated solutions within the EU and threatened to take countermeasures if Germany unilaterally tried to push back asylum seekers across the Austrian border.

The Brussels statement presents Seehofer and his party with a good opportunity to claim victory – after all, “secondary movements” wouldn’t have been tackled so quickly on a European level had they not put pressure on Merkel – and climb down. Further confrontation would be counterproductive. The CSU has failed to gain in the Bavarian polls since it got into the public fight with Merkel, and though Germans overwhelmingly support sending back asylum seekers registered elsewhere, a recent nationwide poll by Infratest Dimap showed that three quarters of Germans would welcome a European solution to migration issues over a unilateral German one. 

Political divisions appear to have been stitched up, if not healed. The question is whether the solutions being hammered out under heavy political pressure will actually work, both from a practical and a moral standpoint.

The EU is now intent on building all kinds of refugee camps – in North Africa to prevent crossings and in Europe to process asylum applications. This is essentially a detention system for people whose “crime” is seeking a better, safer life; it’s hardly likely to help the integration of those who will ultimately be allowed into Europe. Besides, the North African camps create an enormous potential for abuses, from corruption to various strains of inhumanity. Europe could be compromising on its values as it seeks consensus among its member states, some of which have strong nationalist, anti-immigrant parties.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.