Stefano Fontolan: The refugee crisis weakened positions of Merkel as a European leader

06 May 2016

Walls are coming back to Europe. Austria is building one along the border with Italy and has already secured with a fence that with Slovenia. The latter has erected a barrier with Croatia. Hungary is extending the wall built along its southern frontier, while FYROM and Bulgaria have also made fences against Greece and Turkey, Stefano Fontolan, BA in International Relations (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan), writes about that for an official website of the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund.

Throughout the Continent, from Sweden to Germany, from France to Slovakia, border controls are being re-established halting de facto the Schengen system, and the wave of consent to nationalist and populist parties tells that this is just the beginning. These are the measures that EU members are putting in place in order to counter the new massive flood of immigrants that is heading to Europe. The latest chapter of the refugee crisis which, when mixed with the terrorist threat, the war in Ukraine and the clash over economic policies, could actually bring to the collapse of the European Union.

Yet, these defensive policies, although upsetting and probably useless, are just the result and not the cause of the problem, as some commentators otherwise suggest. As a matter fact, unilateral decisions, lack of confrontation and profound weakness of the EU institutions are to blame for the complete inability to manage the migration flows, turning them into one of the biggest threat that the EU has ever experienced due to their security, cultural and economic implications.

In this context, Germany bears major responsibilities. After years of deliberately ignoring the calls for help coming from the Mediterranean countries, in August 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel suddenly declared a policy of open borders for refugees, stating that she would have let all asylum-seekers to remain in Germany regardless of the rules of the Dublin convention, and a few days later the Vice-chancellor added that the country was ready to take “around half million refugees a year for several years”. This decision was immediately met with great skepticism by the bordering countries and alienated Germany to most of its traditional allies such as Austria, Poland and Czech Republic, which were not only afraid of the impact of the transit on their territory but were also pressured by Berlin to take in more asylum seekers.

The modality and outcome of the “open-doors” policy proved, for the first time, Merkel’s leadership to be unable to lead the Union, despite the fact she is still regarded as the strongest leader of the group. In other words, Merkel might have gained a moral leadership, but lost the political one.

Hungarian President Viktor Orban, whose policies on refugees had been harshly criticized by western leaders, accused Merkel of “moral imperialism”. The Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka said that “Germany sent a signal that was seen and heard in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, that has spurred illegal migration toward Europe”, while the former Czech President Vacla Kluas labeled as “naive and absolutely irrational” Merkel’s statements. Italian PM Renzi, who in a first moment had praised Merkel’s commitment, told to Frankfurter Allgemeine in February “It can’t be sufficient for Angela to first call Hollande and then EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and that I learn of the result in the press” lamenting the unilateralism of the Chancellor. Most recently, the elections in Austria forced the Socialist President Faymann, who despite his party’s traditional tolerant attitude proposed fencing the Brennero, to resign and it is currently expected to win the ballot the candidate of the radical right-wing party Norbert Hofer, a major blown to both Merkel and the stability of the EU. In the last months even Austria and Sweden expressed their annoyance with Germany by restricting asylum policies and toughening boarder controls.

Indeed the unilateral open-doors policy caused the situation to collapse in all the neighbor countries that were making efforts to keep illegal immigrants out or to regroup and identify them in dedicated camps. Hundred of thousands of men and women seeking asylum or economic opportunities broke out of Hungary, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Southern Balkans breaking every legal brake and started to march towards Germany and Austria. The situation got so critical that in the end Merkel resolved to organize special trains from Budapest to Munich, before tightening herself the asylum rules. Furthermore, strong of the welcome granted by Germany, hundred of thousands more sailed from Turkey to Greece - according to the International Organization for Migration, until April 30 2016 184,000 people arrived in Greece compared to 2015’s total of 48,636 during the same four-month period. If the boarders before were pierced and creaking, for some weeks they were just left open to let to this human flood to transit. The anarchy didn’t last long: shortly after the Balkan route countries set up measures even stricter than those applied before, de facto halting the Schengen system and bringing back boarder controls.

According to the Dublin convention, immigrants, who started to arrive in Italy massively in 2011, have to make their asylum requests while staying in the country they first arrived in. Yet. being Italy and Greece the spearheads of the continent in the Mediterranean, these rules looked very unequal. In 2014 alone Italy hosted 170.000 alleged refugees, and by the mid 2015 the situation had become even more dramatic due to the worsening of the conflicts in Middle East. Calls to revise the treaty and introduce a quota system had gone unheard and the EU Commission proved to have no power at all over its member states in such matters.

A sudden change came from Germany’s policy shift in late August, which occurred under the pressure of media and public opinion in the aftermath of the sink of a refugee boat brining tens of Syrian children. As Der Spiegel commented, it was a decision caused by empathy and lacking of strategic thinking, something new for the Iron chancellor Angela Merkel who had so harshly opposed any modifications of the Dublin treaty for three years. In September, under the moral spur of Berlin, the other member states also agreed on launching a quota system and redistribute part of the immigrants that had arrived in Italy and Greece. So far, the plan has been a complete disaster: by January only 272 people had been deported out of 160 thousands planned in 2 years.

Under the pressure of an increasing number of arrivals, the come-back of walls and controls and the high economic costs, finally the focus shifted from where to relocate refugees to how to prevent them from coming. A much more cynical but realistic purpose. This new strategy actually disavowed the initial German optimism that the country could take millions in for “several years”. An EU forecast of other 3 million arrivals by 2017 and the mounting of internal opposition forced Berlin to sit back at the table with the other member states and try to figure out how to tackle the issue once again.

In October, with the support of the UNCHR and of the Commission, the countries part of the Balkan Route agreed on a 15 points strategy in order to shape a somewhat coherent and easier approach in managing the movement of people. As a matter of fact, the bottleneck caused by thousands of arrivals per day made it impossible to conduct serious screenings in Greece alone.

At the same time, however the game was being played at much higher diplomatic level. Germany lobbied on the EU Commission about the necessity of making a deal with Turkey, the country from which hundred of thousands of refugee were departing to Europe. The goal was to obtain that those who did not qualify for asylum were sent back to Turkey, which should also prevent them from leaving the country by raising controls. This way, the Balkan route could be eventually closed, keeping the refugees in Greece while waiting to be redistributed. Yet, the specifications of the deal are at best complex, at worst impossible to put in practice. All those arrived in continental Greece will be deported to Turkey, while those arrived by sea and stationed on the Greek islands’ hotspots will be able to remain there until their asylum request is processed and receives answer. In exchange, the EU should take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every single one deported back. Moreover, just days after signing the first agreement, which granted Turkey 3 billion euros, the lift of the visa regime on turkish citizens and the resumption of talks for entrance in the Union, Ankara started calling for modifications, asking for 3 billion more, and thus testing its leverage power.

In a nutshell, Erdogan, one of the main supporters of the Syrian rebellion and according to several intelligence leaked files, even of the Islamic States, after months of criticisms from the West for his religious radicalism and the crackdown on civil society, was given the key of Europe through a multibillion agreement of difficult implementation. A move that, despite making sense in an attempt to stop-up the arrival of immigrants in the short term, didn’t make any in the broader context of European foreign policy. As of today, the number of arrivals has not decreased, remaining at around 2000 a day just to Greece. Moreover, once again, the operation was conducted almost exclusively by the tandem Berlin-Brussels, sparking skepticism by other member states and this time also by the media, which labeled the deal as a favor to a tyrant.

Today, the solution to the refugee crisis seems to have still a long way to go. Even in the unlikely case that the deal with Turkey will be successful, the other major human trafficking hub in the Mediterranean, Libya, is still fully operational in sending immigrants to Italy across the sea, Moreover, the EU member states continue to change or take back their immigrants quotas, as recently done by Poland and Hungary.Through this long process of too many trials and errors, some major facts emerged: the total lack of power and authority of the EU institutions, even in a matter essential for the future of the Union; the inability of Germany to apply coherent and effective strategies to the problem; the failure in identifying the long term responsibilities, and thus solutions, to the problem. If it wants to survive and be able to face new challenges, the EU needs much more cooperation. And many more forward-looking leaders.