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The fifth consecutive meeting focusing on the immigration crisis was blighted by deepening divisions and failure to follow through on past promises
European leaders struggled on Thursday evening to agree on action to cope with the migration crisis amid ever deepening divisions, impotence, and failure to follow through on earlier pledges.
While David Cameron’s campaign to refashion the terms of Britain’s EU membership occupied much of a critical EU summit, for many of the other leaders the immigration crisis loomed larger given that an estimated 1.2 million people have entered the EU mainly from the Middle East this year.
Leaders discussed incendiary proposals tabled by the European Commission this week creating an EU border and coast guard empowered to overrule national governments when the EU’s external frontiers are deemed to be inadequately secured.
The commission proposal won strong support on Thursday from the German and French leaders, but in many parts of the EU is viewed as an assault on the sovereignty of nation states. They agreed to come up with a position by next summer.
The summit, the fifth such meeting in a row to focus on the immigration emergency, revisited many of the measures heads of government and interior ministers have already decided since last spring without ever putting the decisions into effect.
“The measures have been taken, but not applied,” said the French president, François Hollande, for whom tough security policies are particularly important following last month’s terrorist atrocities in Paris.
Britain is only marginally involved in the policy debate because it is not part of the 26-country free-travel Schengen zone, takes no part in EU common asylum policies, and need not take part in EU interior policy coordination.
The worsening divisions over what to do about refugees, the future of the Schengen area, and the reintroduction of national border controls were laid bare by a mini-summit of eight countries that preceded the full meeting.
Angela Merkel, the German leader, led a session of seven other government leaders from Scandinavia, Benelux, Austria, and Greece aimed at trying to agree on how to share quotas of refugees taken directly from Turkey as part of a flagging €3bn deal Brussels recently reached with Ankara. Merkel is the driving force behind the initiative. But the so-called “coalition of the willing” could only attract 8 of 28 EU countries, highlighting that there is no longer a majority in the EU for a new system of permanent quotas sharing refugees across the union.
Hollande made clear that France would observe a system of quotas agreed in September, spreading 160,000 people across the EU from Greece and Italy, but that Paris would not take part in further such schemes.
Merkel has warned that the future of the Schengen system could be imperilled unless there is more generous burden-sharing of refugees. Around 1 million newcomers have entered Germany this year.
But the mini-summit linked governments who are willing to share refugees “voluntarily” rather than on a new mandatory basis being proposed by the European Commission. This strongly suggested that, at least for now, Merkel has abandoned hopes of securing a “European solution” to the refugee crisis.
And the figures being discussed have rapidly collapsed from the ambitious to the arguably meaningless, given the scale of the problem. A month ago, Berlin and others were talking of taking 400,000-500,000 people directly from Turkey. By Thursday the figure had sunk to 50,000-80,000.
The east European states who are most strongly opposed to taking in refugees were threatened with cuts to the huge cash handouts they receive from the EU budget. All of the countries attending the mini-summit apart from Greece are net contributors to the EU budget and are also the biggest recipients of refugees, an expensive undertaking.
The Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, warned the east Europeans they could not expect to shun “solidarity” on refugees while receiving hundreds of billions in transfers from western Europe.
A confidential paper on immigration presented to the summit by Luxembourg, currently in the EU’s six-month rotating chair, represented a long list of unredeemed pledges by national governments and false promises.
Of the September agreement to shift 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, 184 people had actually been moved to other host countries. Of an earlier agreement to take 22,000 refugees from camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, a mere 600 were beneficiaries to date. Of 11 reception centres promised for Greece and Italy months ago, only two were operational.
And Merkel’s hopes that the deal struck with Turkey in October would stem the flow of people across the Aegean into Greece also appeared to be fading. This month, around 4,000 were making the crossing daily, the report said. This was a bit lower than in November, but the report ascribed the reduction to the weather rather than to Turkish action.
“We agreed a certain number of rules with Turkey,” said Hollande. “If we can’t get control of our external borders, then we can’t go further on the promises we made to Turkey.”