Wave of refugees continues to highlight rifts in the EU

The EU summit today on refugee crisis is likely to be another talking shop, says Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill

EUROPEAN Union states are behaving increasingly like truculent teens in the face of the greatest wave of refugees across the continent since the end of the last world war, with 710,000 arriving in the first nine months of this year, compared to 282,000 recorded in all of last year.

Their response so far has been to hope that the problem goes away. Thus, today’s summit is likely to be just one more talking shop, where they all complain about their problems, but refuse to agree on a remedy.

They want the 7m Syrian refugees — half of them children under the age of 18 — to remain in camps outside Europe, but the camps operated by the UNHCR and World Food Programme are running out of funds for food.

At least €1bn is needed to support the needs of refugees through the above organisations, of which the EU has pledged half. However, so far, the member states have pledged only €275m of the remainder, with 80% of this coming from Britain and Germany.

The EU budget is providing €500m for the Syria crisis, but only Italy and Germany have pledged between them €8m of the €500m extra requested from countries by the European Commission.

Also, €1.8bn is coming from EU funding to address the root causes of migration and displaced persons in Africa, but just three countries have pledged €9m between them to match this figure.

They want refugees who land on EU territory to stay where they are or be sent back to their own countries, but request for 374 personnel to help the two main entry states — Greece and Italy — to process them so far has produced only 81.

They point out that the current system, in which a migrant is registered and fingerprinted in the first country they enter, is not working.

However, the European Commission issued 40 new infringement cases against 19 countries on top of the 34 already opened, yet none have replied.

The real issue is that the borders are not secure, they say, and call for a fortress solution, but they opted against an EU common border and coastguard, though proposals will be on the table in December.

However, the body to help co-ordinate border work, Frontex, last week requested 775 personnel, but so far has been offered just 48.

It took several late-night meetings and a divisive vote to get countries to agree to take a mere 160,000 over two years from Italy and Greece, but so far just five countries have committed themselves to take a first batch, with the first 19, all Eritreans, going to Sweden last week from Italy. The first relocation from Greece happens next week to Luxembourg and, in total, another 100 are due to go over the coming days. About 1,600 are due to leave Italy each month and the European Commission hopes that once the system of selection and matchmaking is bedded in, it will pick up speed.

Commission president Jean Claude Juncker is expected to spell out the realities of the situation to the 28 leaders, but getting them to play their role will not be easy. On the one hand, they demand that the commission produce plans, but they have spent three years talking as the crisis has grown, exposing deep divisions between member states that threaten the EU.

Perhaps the only welcome news for many leaders will be that the plan to return people found not to qualify for asylum is underway, with 28 Tunisians and 35 Egyptians returned to their countries on the same day 19 were flown to Sweden. Plans to have the relocation of refugees made a permanent part of the EU’s patchy asylum system are being quietly set to one side, as the European Commission continues to try to pressure and persuade countries to take the first few steps towards fulfilling their commitments.

Juncker called for a permanent mechanism to be established to deal with the crisis, but so far this has been ignored by member states, and Angeliki Dimitriadi of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy warns “history has shown that unless a permanent system is set up, European solidarity will be a game of chance”, adding that the crisis is “revealing a deeper schism in a union divided”.

The current situation echoes the deep rift of the banking crisis that suddenly revealed the limits of solidarity, despite having a common currency. Now, despite open borders, again it is everyone for themselves.

The commissioner responsible for migration policy, vice-president Frans Timmermans, warned that “this is a crisis that will be with us for a long time and will have long-term financial consequences for the EU and member states”. He made it quite clear that no single measure could deal with the crisis, saying “we need all the measures taken in all member states and all to assume their responsibilities”.

Many are willing to compromise foreign policies to try to ensure people stay away, such as making concessions to Turkey, including visa-free entry for its citizens, for keeping its 1.9m Syrian refugees in camps.

There is still no ambition to establish ways for those requiring protection to apply without risking their lives crossing seas or borders, despite the fact that this gives the smugglers a clear field. Instead, they want police and military to hunt down smugglers.

Meanwhile, economists point out that the 800,000 migrants Germany is taking in is not enough to make up for its falling working population, while adding that there is a glut of low-skilled people in the EU and a growing shortage of more skilled workers.

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