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Several far-right European leaders, including Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, met over the weekend in Prague, from where they called for travel bans, border walls and pushbacks of boats carrying migrants. Sadly, politicians and technocrats in the European Union are providing the far-right with a golden opportunity to release this populist poison because they cannot unite behind a common approach to the refugee question.
Just hours before the Prague gathering, EU leaders discussed competing views about the quota system, which envisions a certain number of refugees being allocated to each member state, but there was no decision. The debate is due to continue.
The tension over this particular issue was ratcheted up before the European Council, when its president, Donald Tusk, floated the idea of scrapping the quota system, suggesting that it is not working and that it is up to member states, rather than the EU, to come up with solutions.
The proposals were treated as an affront by European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, who said Tusk’s letter was “unacceptable” and “anti-European.” The language used by Avramopoulos might have been excessive or undiplomatic, but he made it clear that his frustration lay with the feeling that the work carried out to agree on burden-sharing regarding the reception of refugees was being undermined.
If this is turned into a clash between the Greek commissioner and the Polish president of the Council, or a conflict between European institutions, it means that other, more serious, issues will be overlooked.
The commissioner indicated in his comments that he felt Tusk is giving the countries which have so far opposed the quota scheme a free pass and a way out of living up to the responsibilities they have as EU members. Hungary and Slovakia challenged the legality of the 2015 quota decision but lost the case at the European Court of Justice in September. The European Commission announced earlier this month that it is taking Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to court over their opposition to the relocation scheme.
Avramopoulos argued that Tusk’s proposal undermines the principle of solidarity within the EU. Speaking after the Council meeting on Friday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras expressed a similar view. He explained that as far as he is concerned the issue is not whether some countries will accept a small number of refugees or not but whether there is a set of rules that everyone must follow or whether an “a la carte” system will emerge.
It may sound like impudence from Tsipras, given the clashes he has had in the past with the Commission and other European institutions, but the Greek prime minister did not shy away from addressing this point. He explained that he had to agree to rules he did not like and that if he had to do so, others should do the same.
There is a very important point here, which has to do with the way in which rules are imposed and consensus is reached within the EU and the feeling in some member states that they are subject to different treatment. One of the mantras from European officials and politicians in the north and east over the past few years, when dealing with the bailouts of southern European states, was that the EU is a rules-based Union that will be subvereted if these regulations are bent or not observed.
This was the cause of much frustration in the south, which felt that the rules in question had to be adapted to a new reality. This did not happen and Portugal, Greece, Spain and Cyprus all had to comply with the framework put together by the European institutions, other member states and the International Monetary Fund.
Since the start of the refugee crisis, though, the same iron will has not been on display and this is why, over the course of some two years, the Czech Republic has accepted just 12 refugees from Greece, Slovakia 16 and Hungary and Poland have not taken any.
To many in Greece, and most likely Italy from where refugees are also being relocated under the scheme, the proposal to potentially scrap the quotas seems like an unwarranted concession to eastern European member states. It suggests that the rules do not actually have to be followed in some circumstances, whether this be a result of having the right connections, if it relates to a socio-politically sensitive issue like migration or if you are able to club together and exert more influence like the four countries mentioned earlier did as the Visegrad Group.
There should be no doubt in Brussels or other capitals that if this is the impression that remains, it will do lasting damage to the appetite for unity within the EU and the longer-term European project as a whole.
Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that Tsipras has every interest to speak up on this issue, regardless of whether he feels personally wronged or has genuine concern about EU solidarity being undermined.
His government is struggling to manage refugees flows and has been at loggerheads recently with the authorities on the Aegean islands where most migrants are concentrated due to overcrowding and the poor condition of facilities.
On this issue, there are two things that need to be addressed. The first is the Greek government’s own responsibility for the dire state in which many migrants are living. It has been reported that some 800 million euros has been spent on the humanitarian response to the crisis in Greece. Not all of this money has gone to the Greek government, but the authorities still have to be held accountable as camps continue to lack decent facilities and worries about their winterisation have resurfaced for the third winter in a row. It is telling that Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, who recently admitted that he could not guarantee there would be more deaths at the camps, is conisdered a certainty to be removed in the cabinet reshuffle Tsipras is expected to carry out soon.
Athens is also responsible for the slow pace at which migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected are being returned to Turkey. Between April 2016 and September 2017, just 73 people a month were returned on average, which was much lower than the number of people arriving in Greece, mostly in boats from the coast of Turkey. The total number of migrants sent back by Greece to Turkey under the agreement with the EU stood at less than 2,000 as of September. There were more than 4,000 arrivals each month in September and October, which was the highest since March 2016, according to the UNHCR.
It is clear that improvements need to be made in the Greek asylum system even though more than 9,000 applications were approved or rejected last year, compared to around 6,000 in 2014.
The other aspect that has to be examined is the extent to which Europe is living up to its commitments. As far as the relocation scheme is concerned, there are great shortcomings. As of December 8, just over 32,000 refugees had been formally relocated from Greece and Italy (21,548 from Greece) out of 98,255 places that are legally foreseen. This means 65,862 refugees have yet to be relocated under the quota system agreed more than two years ago.
Last year, the European commission proposed forcing countries that do not cooperate to pay a contribution of 250,000 euros per asylum seeker, but this suggestion has not been followed up.
There is also pressure on Greece to avoid moving refugees from the islands to the mainland as this is regarded by other EU member states as a “pull factor,” which sends a message to asylum seekers waiting in Turkey that if they cross the Aegean there is the possibility of anything other than being stuck at a hot-spot on a Greek island before being sent back several months later.
What we are witnessing is an inability on Greece’s side to meet the requirements of the agreement made by the EU with Turkey and an apparent powerlessness on the EU’s side to ensure that member states’ obligations are met. In the meantime, thousands of people wait in unacceptable conditions to learn their fate. This is shameful for all those involved.
If European leaders are not going to be moved by the fate of these people, then maybe the prospect of their dithering and diunity giving more oxygen to the far-right can shake them from their daze.
Perhaps there is a belief that the refugee issue will sort itself out as some migrants are absorbed and others are sent back.The far-right, though, has shown that it is not going to disappear any time soon. Its leaders have already proven, in many places across Europe, their capacity to force mainstream parties to adopt their agenda without ever having to carry the responsibility of being in power.
At the current rate, it will be no surprise to see the ideas discussed in Prague last weekend becoming part of the central, rather than fringe, political discussion in Europe before too long.