BRUSSELS: The European Union’s struggle to staunch the flow of hundreds of thousands of people across its borders represents the continent’s biggest refugee emergency in over half a century. But far from being insurmountable, many of the EU’s challenges are self-inflicted, the bloc’s own chief executive admits. Ambitions exceed capabilities and promises are broken. On the ground, there is chaos, willful obstruction or just plain incompetence.
EU nations are “moving slowly at a time when they should be running,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently told lawmakers. “The gap between the pledges and what is on the table must be reduced,” he said. “Otherwise we are losing all kinds of credibility.”
The arrival of more than 700,000 people this year is ratcheting up tensions. Many EU countries are blaming Germany – the preferred home of many seeking sanctuary or jobs in Europe – for encouraging the masses to continue making the perilous journey.
The controversial razor-wire border fence in Hungary, with its echoes of Europe’s darker past, has begun to seem like a reasonable option to Slovenia and Austria. Police and the military now stand alongside guards on Europe’s borders. Speed is of the essence in tackling the crisis. Increasingly cold weather is a new enemy, as the EU and member states race to set up shelters along thousands of kilometers of the “migrant route” out of Greece northwest to Austria.
Throwing money at challenges
The vast amounts of money that the EU often throws at its challenges are being grudgingly mustered – but cash and policy changes have so far proved woefully inadequate. Yet neither the tragic recent deaths in the Aegean; nor the scenes of shivering migrants trudging through Balkan mud; nor the mounting chaos and squalor in asylum centers in even wealthy Germany should come as any surprise. Since the drowning of more than 350 migrants off Italy two years ago pushed leaders to vow a comprehensive response, there has mainly been foot-dragging and bickering.
The frontline in this fight is Greece – where more than half a million people have arrived this year alone. Many of them are Syrians fleeing conflict and coming to Europe via Turkey. Greece has been overwhelmed. Already battling a severe economic crisis, Athens is unable to stop – let alone register and fingerprint – the sheer numbers coming through.
Beyond this, Greece has proved incapable of even accepting help from others. It has dithered about EU aid money and stymied humanitarian groups trying to erect tents on islands where no shelter exists. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has committed to increasing Greece’s reception capacity to 50,000 places from around 10,000 currently. But Athens has no obvious plan for how and where this will happen. But given Greece’s debt mountain, and the austerity imposed on citizens, no one dares criticize the country in public, and the government has appeared too proud to accept help.
After the recent EU-Balkans mini-summit, Tsipras said the leaders’ plans contained “absurd proposals” and that he rejected them. One would have created “nearly an entire city of 50,000 refugees.” Another could have allowed countries to block refugees coming from a neighbor, which Tsipras said would create “a domino effect” going backward into countries like Greece.
“My number one suggestion was that we should go down south and defend the borders of Greece if they are not able to do that,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “But nobody listened to us.” A similar reception scheme for the Balkans route is advancing, but major hurdles remain, and there is no common vision for how the thousands of asylum-seekers should be sheltered.
Four nations – Austria, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia – have promised to set up reception points for 12,000 people along the route. Each has chosen locations on its own though, and has not coordinated with neighbors. Serbia says it is moving fast, with shelters due in place by the beginning of November. It has asked for EU money before providing any more. Concerned by the disunity, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has warned: “If we don’t stick together, we will hang separately.” One obvious failure is a plan to deploy 400 police officers to Slovenia by Oct 22. As of Oct 29, EU partners had pledged less than half – 183 officers. Only 13 were on the ground, with 30 more due soon.
Plans for the EU’s Frontex border agency to start work in Croatia near the Serbian border are on hold, awaiting a response from the government in Zagreb. Faced with little likelihood that the flow of migrants will ease, Germany has notified the EU that it plans to extend border checks on people until at least Nov 13.
Berlin has also warned that it may continue to do so using a new legal mechanism which could allow controls for up to two years. It is feared that such checks could undermine Europe’s open borders project. In terms of financial aid, EU nations promised to provide an extra 2.3 billion Euros a month ago. So far 86 million Euros has been pledged.
More broadly, the plan to move tens of thousands of refugees out of Greece and Italy has barely advanced. So far 86 people have been shared among EU partners. Thirty more were due in Luxembourg soon. “Nine member states have let us know that they can soon relocate 700 people,” Juncker said. “But let’s not forget that we have a decision to relocate 160,000 refugees.” – AP