Last week saw a number of developments in the EU refugee saga, as thousands of people kept arriving in Italy, Greece and Hungary. Mainly pictures from the Budapest Keleti railway station became notorious, when several thousand migrants camped outside unable to get by train to Germany and Austria. In the end, the refugees, refusing to be registered in Hungary as the EU rules would normally require, set up to walk to Austria. Germany and Austria both stated they would not enforce the so-called Dublin rules and would not ship migrants back to Hungary, from whence they had come. Many officials thus called the EU asylum system defunct in practice and new solutions are being sought.
Earlier, EU leaders agreed to relocate some 40 000 incoming migrants from states most hit by the migration wave. Although the target is mandatory, the exact distribution mechanism was not agreed. These so-called quotas are, however, still seen as one of the ways to deal with the situation. Italy, Greece and Hungary are overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers and do not have the capacity to process all of them in an orderly manner. European Council President Tusk and Commission President Juncker talked of a new target of at least 100 000 migrants to be relocated for asylum procedures.
However, mainly the V4 countries strongly oppose this approach. Hungarian PM Orbán stated clearly in Brussels, that quotas would only encourage more people to come. He said we ought to discourage people from coming. Also, in a very strongly-worded statement, he said the current crisis is not a European one, but rather a German one – asylum-seekers want to go mainly to Germany. At a summit in Prague last week, the V4 prime ministers agreed that mandatory quotas are no solution. They proposed a different approach – supporting the overwhelmed states personally, technically and financially. The main challenge, in their view however, is to stop the people from coming in the first place.
Reactions from Brussels and from Western member states to such views have not been pretty. Some are determined to push the quotas through and criticize Eastern countries for lack of solidarity and humanity. There has even been talk of activating the “nuclear” article 7 of the EU Treaty, which enables the Council to freeze EU voting rights for states in breach of human rights. Other forms of financial sanctions have also been discussed. According to media reports, EU foreign ministers meeting at an informal “Gymnich” (informal Foreign Affairs Council) discussed a possible compromise – a mandatory EU-wide quota system for asylum-seekers, with the possibility of an opt-out clause for everyone willing to pay for its activation. Eastern European diplomats, however, indicated that whereas it could be a solution, they would not stand in the way of a consensus on quotas even without the opt-out possibility – indicating a compromise might be close.
Amid shocked reactions to the sad pictures from the Greek beaches, France and Germany announced a new push for a solution. EU interior ministers will meet on 14 September. A high level summit will be held in mid-October. High Representative Mogherini also announced, that there has been an understanding concerning the ongoing EUNAVFOR MED military operation in the Mediterranean designed to fight smugglers networks. Its first phase, intelligence gathering, has been concluded and its second phase is prepared – active searching for smugglers´ vessels and their re-routing away from EU shores. However, the second phase would only be activated in international waters. For the operation to be more effective, UN Security Council approval for operating in Libyan waters would be needed – which is highly unlikely to be obtained at this point. The second phase in international waters is expected to be deployed by the end of the month. Other possibilities, such as processing asylum requests in third countries, are also being discussed.