Migration is certainly one of the biggest issues for the European Union and the Member States have not yet found a feasible structural long-term solution. The figures show that the European Union does not currently face a large external migration problem. What it undoubtedly faces, however, is a large internal political problem about such migration. Monthly “irregular arrivals” into the EU from the Middle East and Africa have actually fallen like a stone since 2015. In May this year they were down 96% from their October 2015 peak. Depending on events, 2018 is currently on course to see the lowest irregular migrant totals across the Mediterranean for four years.

The politics of migration are an entirely different matter. They follow a separate path. Austria and Italy have both elected hardline governments in recent months to join the eastern bloc of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in resisting refugees and opposing any EU quota system. Germany’s coalition government is also under huge internal pressure to take a much tougher approach than in the past.

Seen from Britain, the June 2018 EU summit in Brussels was supposed to be a milestone in the Brexit process. In reality, the EU council barely debated Brexit at all. There was a brief speech on the first evening by Theresa May, and a discussion among the 15 on Friday which generated an even briefer, though notably bad-tempered, communique. The difficult Brexit issues have all been postponed. Instead, the issue that forced the 28 national leaders to argue among themselves until dawn on Friday was not Brexit, but migration.

It was very important that the EU struck its deal this week. Failure to do so would have signalled the union’s impotence in the face of external migration and of the politics that this migration has thrown up in almost every member state. It might also have brought down Angela Merkel’s government, leading to a power vacuum within the EU on the eve of Donald Trump’s hostile and troublemaking visit to Europe next month, and perhaps also triggering a domino process of national border closures that would have brought the Schengen free travel area to its knees.[i]

Whether the deal will last, or will work, or will begin to draw the sting of the migration issue are all profoundly doubtful, however. It is very hard to be confident that any of these things will happen. The summit communique may say that the issue is one for Europe “as a whole”, but the practical reality is that differences were papered over, not resolved. The EU’s much-vaunted principles of solidarity were conspicuous by their absence in words of studied vagueness.

Crucially, the 28 were as unwilling as ever to share the impact of refugees. Italy’s demands got nowhere because of blanket central European objections (backed by Britain). Instead Italy’s grievances were ultimately bought off by a voluntary system of new “control centres” in those countries willing to allow them, in which the claims of rescued migrants would be processed. There were, though, few details and the position of humanitarian NGOs was ignored.[ii]

The response to Angela Merkel’s insistence that all member states should commit to take “all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures” to prevent refugees from heading across internal EU borders in order to get to Germany is equally problematic. [iii] Though Greece seems willing to work with Germany on this, it is unlikely that Italy, in particular, will do what Berlin wants. Relief for the German chancellor may not last long, especially if Mr Trump, who has Germany in his sights over trade and military spending, has his way.

Justified scepticism

At a time when arguments over the docking of rescue vessels show European co-operation to be at a low ebb – and at a time when opposition to taking in migrants is more entrenched than ever – the measures announced in the EU agreement seem unclear and far from unanimously agreed upon.

What exactly does the agreement say? And will it improve conditions for the thousands of people trying to enter Europe? Will it succeed in stopping the proponents of radical ideas who pose a threat to the security on the continent? And will the Member States overcome their differences and be able to pursue a common mutual migration policy? The questions today are certainly more than the clear answers.

The “regional disembarkation platforms” are amongst the main stumbling blocks. This is still a vaguely described concept, which the agreement says should be “explored quickly”. To deter crossings in the Mediterranean, migrants rescued at sea from outside Europe could stay at these places, in co-operation with two UN agencies.

But the problem is that, thus far, no third country has offered to host such places to receive migrants who have been rescued in international waters, where there is the vexed question of how to distinguish between irregular migrants and eligible asylum seekers entering the EU in accordance with international law.

This particular measure – and indeed the agreement as a whole – constitute “a real fiasco”, according to Patrick Martin-Genier, a European politics specialist at Sciences-Po in Paris. “We agree that we don’t agree on anything – and then we ask the European Council and European Commission to consider this idea for regional disembarkation platforms outside Europe, something no one wants, whether it be Libya, Algeria, Morocco or Albania,” he said.[iv]

Thierry Allafort-Duverger, director general of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), expressed a similar view: “There have been plans to set centres up in Niger, and they didn’t work; we outsource everything and don’t try to find European solutions to these problems.”

In the eyes of Yves Pascouau, an academic specialising in migration at the University of Nantes, this idea could be a way forward, “but if – and only if – people in these centres have the same access to the asylum procedure as those who have reached Europe”.

“But it won’t work if we set up centres that reject 99% of asylum applications,” he said, “People will still try to get into Europe illegally via the Mediterranean, through gangs of people smugglers”.[v]

New victory for Central Europe

Central European leaders have hailed a EU summit deal that will not oblige them to take in refugees, while Balkan states insist they will not host major migrant camps amid plans for “disembarkation platforms” outside the block.

An agreement reached in the early hours of June 29th foresees the creation of “controlled centres” in EU states that are willing to host them, where migrants’ asylum claims can be assessed to separate likely refugees from so-called economic migrants, with the latter being sent home.

EU leaders also backed a call “to swiftly explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms, in close co-operation with relevant third countries” and the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and migration agency (IOM).

North African states are seen as the most likely sites for such facilities, to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy, but Balkan countries worry that they could be possible venues amid a sharp rise in migrants transiting the region.

In a Facebook post titled “After the battle”, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said he was “tired but also satisfied” after “a great victory” for the so-called Visegrad group comprising Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.[vi]

“The threat was upon us that they would start the resettlement of migrants into European states from the refugee camps that will be set up. We managed to fend off this proposal and have our proposal approved, which clearly states that nobody can be resettled to another country without [its] consent,” he added.

“Thus Hungary will not become an immigrant country; Hungary will remain a Hungarian country.”

The deal calls for the EU to bolster the resources of the European border force, Frontex, by giving it more financial resources and a broader mandate. It also plans to strengthen support for the Libyan coastguard and calls on “all vessels operating in the Mediterranean” to “respect applicable laws and not hinder Libyan coastguard operations”. This went down particularly well with Italy and Malta.

Between the real needs and the political games

The EU 28 aren’t facing a migration crisis – they’re facing a political crisis. Will this crisis – whether migratory or political – be overcome? It seems dubious, especially at a time when Austria, in favour of a restrictive policy on taking in migrants, takes the rotating presidency of the EU on July. The leaders backed plans to put more money and resources into external border controls and agreed to create “processing centres” outside Europe. But it remains to be seen whether these commitments are bankable or effective. This was a very fractious summit on a deeply divisive issue, and it may signal a more fractious EU, not an EU that has pulled back from the brink. Italy’s attempt to block every single summit conclusion on every subject unless its migration control demands were satisfied may have gone down well among anti-migrant voters back home. But it signalled that, if this is a “fortress Europe”, it is a fortress full of faultlines.

Amongst all these controversies and centrifugal forces one clearly positive thing emerged – Europe now recognizes that it has a problem with the current open-door policy and is ready to discuss it. Angela Merkel became the nominal architect of migration policy back in 2015 when she decided to allow over 1 million migrants into the country as a necessary step to help its European neighbors. This open-door policy has since been fervently criticized by an increasing number of domestic lawmakers, including many within her own ranks. Today this policy is morally and financially unfeasible and Europe needs a new position which puts the European interest first.

[i] The Guardian view on the EU migration deal: fault lines in the fortress, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/29/the-guardian-view-on-the-eu-migration-deal-fault-lines-in-the-fortress

[ii] EU ‘migration summit’: big on promises, short on detail, EU Observer, https://euobserver.com/migration/142243

[iii] Europe’s migration crisis is ‘make-or-break’ for the EU, Germany’s Merkel says, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/28/europes-migration-crisis-is-make-or-break-for-the-eugermanys-mer.html

[iv] EU migration deal ‘agrees that they don’t agree on anything’, France 24, http://www.france24.com/en/20180630-eu-migration-deal-france-italy-greece-visegrad-refugees-macron-conte-salvini

[v] Idem

[vi] Orban calls EU migration deal ‘great victory’ for central Europe, Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/orban-calls-eu-migration-deal-great-victory-for-central-europe-1.3548541