Last Monday, 14 September, justice and interior ministers of the EU Member States met in Brussels at an Extraordinary Council Meeting to discuss the ongoing refugee crisis. Many crucial steps were agreed to tackle the crisis, however, the meeting was regarded as a failure. The ministers formally adopted the decision to relocate up to 40 000 asylum-seekers on a voluntary basis, a measure informally agreed on at the June European Council. The ministers also stressed the need to secure the Schengen border, to provide support to the bordering states, as well as to states that the asylum-seekers transit. This also includes possibly setting up the so-called hotspots in some of these transit countries, where asylum-seekers would be able to apply for asylum in an EU country and be processed – before actually entering the Union. Also, the EU will draw up a list of safe countries, the citizens of which would not be entitled to asylum in the EU and thus a relatively important part of asylum-seekers could be returned home immediately – freeing the processing capacities for people whose chances for asylum are greater. At the same time, EU representatives also agreed that the naval operation EUNAVFOR MED launched earlier will be able to proceed from phase 1 (intelligence gathering and capacity-building) to its phase 2 – actively searching for smuggler activity and tackling it with military means. Although this action phase would be most effective in Libyan coastal waters, from where the smugglers usually set for Europe, the complicated situation in the country, as well as a lack of UN Security Council approval, means that the operation will only be carried out in international waters for now. The formal launch of phase 2 is expected very soon.
At the same time, interior ministers last Monday failed to agree on the item seen as the objective of the Extraordinary Council – the mandatory resettlement of 120 000 asylum-seekers proposed by Commission President Juncker in his State of the Union speech the week before. The East-West divide was said to be crucial for this failure – Slovak interior minister, supported by some of his Eastern European colleagues, violently opposed any mandatory resettlement quotas. The Council, therefore, did not even come up with formal conclusions, only with informal “Presidency Conclusions”, said to have been supported by the large majority of ministers. In these, it is made clear, that the Council largely agrees on the quotas, but it is clear a consensus has not been reached – and prospects for a consensus are weak.
Following the Council meeting, two possible outcomes circulated in the media. Either the Commission will drop the mandatory basis for the quota – such system would reach consensus in the Council without problems, although its effectiveness is doubtful. The other option is that, since the measure does not formally require a consensus, the Council can vote on it and if a qualified majority is reached, the quotas will come into force. Several Eastern European countries, among others Slovakia and the Czech Republic, conceded that such outcome may come to be. Either way, the final decision has not yet been made. Eastern Europeans called for an Extraordinary European Council, a summit of presidents and prime ministers, to discuss the matter. Their calls were heard by the President Tusk, who called a summit for Wednesday 23 September. At the same time, though, the Luxembourgish Presidency of the Council called another Extraordinary Council meeting for Tuesday 22 September. Should ministers vote on the quotas on Tuesday, the Wednesday summit could yet prove unnecessary.
In any case, although they are only a small and largely symbolic portion of the effort to tackle the refugee crisis, mandatory quotas have become a dividing issue in the Union. Either they will be adopted by vote, or some sort of consensus will be reached (the Commission has indicated that they could yet become voluntary, or that unwilling countries could pay not to participate). In the meantime, though, tens of thousands of refugees enter the EU every week and thus the reality could fast make the quota discussions pointless.
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