Merkel and Salvini's migration crisis: Much ado about nothing?

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
Sophia Besch, Camino Mortera-Martinez, Luigi Scazzieri
23 July 2018

The number of people arriving in Europe is much lower in 2018 than in previous years. Yet, at the European Council on June 28th-29th, EU leaders had to grapple with Germany and Italy’s twin political crises over migration and asylum policy.

The CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, wanted to turn away asylum-seekers already registered in other member-states at the German-Austrian border. Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader and interior minister, faces mounting pressure from the anti-immigration AfD in a forthcoming election in his home turf. He threatened to resign unless Merkel persuaded other member-states to take back asylum-seekers they had already registered. At the same time, spurred by hard-liner Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy demanded other member-states open their ports to the boats arriving from Libya, and that a compulsory mechanism be introduced to distribute asylum-seekers arriving in Italy across Europe.

The EU 28 tried to appease Merkel and Salvini’s home-made migration crises by delivering something for Italy – the so-called ‘controlled centres’ in member-states where migrants’ applications could be processed – and something for Germany – leaders also asked member-states to end irregular movements of asylum-seekers across the EU by co-operating with each other, through, for example, bilateral deals. The European Council also endorsed the controversial idea of ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ – processing centres for migrants in third countries.

But the outcome of the summit satisfies no one, and does not reduce the dangers to Schengen’s survival. In the past weeks, some member-states have taken in a share of the asylum-seekers disembarking in Italy. But they have not agreed to a compulsory, permanent redistribution mechanism. Moreover, no member-state is willing to host ‘controlled centres’ on its territory, with French President Emanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez rejecting the idea.

After the summit, Merkel announced that she had secured the support of a number of member-states, including frontline countries Greece and Spain, to sign bilateral deals that allow Germany to return asylum-seekers to the countries that first registered them. She has since won the support of both the CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD), her other coalition partner, for the establishment of ‘transfer centres’ in Bavaria – where German authorities would process asylum seekers registered elsewhere with a view of sending them back to the country of first entry. But serious questions remain over how these centres would work and how to make other EU member-state accept asylum seekers. Italy – the country from which many previously registered asylum-seekers travelled to Germany – does not appear to be willing to take them back. And Austria has made clear that it will only take the share of migrants that it is obliged to accept under EU law.

The patchy deal has taken the heat out of German domestic politics for now – Merkel managed to offer Seehofer a way to back down from his demands and thereby avoided the breakup of her coalition. But she has come closer than ever before to saying one thing in Brussels and another in Berlin, risking her credibility both in Europe and at home.

In theory, neither the issue of asylum-seekers moving around the EU, nor the number of arrivals in Italy justify the political drama. Between January and April 2018, Germany successfully returned 15,000 asylum-seekers to other member-states, out of a total of 21,500 requested returns. And while Italy did have ample reason to complain about a lack of European solidarity with its heavy migration burden in past years, the number of arrivals has fallen significantly since its 2017 peak: there have been fewer than 18,000 arrivals in 2018 compared to almost 93,000 over the same period of 2017.

However, while the number of new arrivals has fallen, 1.8 million migrants entered the EU between 2014 and 2017, and many asylum cases remain to be dealt with, which keeps the issue in the headlines. The rhetoric of the CSU and Italy’s League resonate with voters because they are able to capitalise on a perception that migration is an epochal challenge for Europe as populations increase in sending countries.

The Schengen border-free area will continue to be at risk unless European leaders reform the Dublin asylum system, which mandates that frontline member states are responsible for processing most claims and returning failed applicants. This fuels a feeling of abandonment in front-line countries, while the perception that these are not living up to their obligations fuels nativism across the EU. Both trends threaten Schengen. Two ideas have been put forward to unblock the EU’s asylum system standstill: processing centres outside the EU, and similar centres inside the EU, from which asylum-seekers would be distributed across member-states. It is only the latter that can possibly work (although it is hardest to agree politically).

Processing centres outside the EU, where the applications of asylum-seekers would be looked at, so that successful ones are sent to Europe, while failed applicants are returned, are an old idea. They have not been made to work so far and probably never will be. First, it is unclear where they could be set up. They would have to be hosted in a stable and safe country, but no such country has yet agreed to host them – why should they deal with Europe’s migration problems? Third countries also fear such centres could be a pull factor for migrants elsewhere, who may end up being stranded in their territory for years. Second, it is unclear on what legal basis asylum claims would be evaluated, as the EU does not have a fully harmonised set of asylum laws. Third, which member-states would take in those whose claims were accepted? Many EU countries dislike the compulsory quota system they agreed to in 2015 and few have complied with it.

It would be very difficult politically to establish processing centres in the EU. The distribution of asylum-seekers could not be done in a binding way across all member-states, as many Central European member-states would refuse to take part. And Germany, France and Spain have so far shown limited enthusiasm for the burden-sharing it would entail. But if a coalition of willing member-states emerged it is possible to imagine a system where all migrants disembarking in Italy, Greece and Spain would be registered and then some would be automatically distributed to other member-states to have their asylum applications processed.

The purpose of these ‘controlled centres’ is to complement the existing ‘hotspots’ - facilities that were set up in Greece and Italy to receive, identify and register asylum-seekers– with a system to share the burden of processing their applications. Such a system would go a long way towards defusing Italian grievances. It would also help ease friction between member-states about the movement of asylum-seekers: frontline states would no longer be responsible for processing all those who arrive, and would be more willing to take back some asylum-seekers. 

The EU will need to make a choice: either it accepts that the Dublin system has never worked and never will, and replaces it with new rules, perhaps relying on a handful of willing member-states acting on a voluntary basis; or it tries to muddle through periodic crises. The latter route means more internecine squabbling, which could result in the loss of one of the EU’s most cherished achievements: the Schengen area. The only real alternative is to balance border controls and legal migration routes, creating partnerships to manage migration with third countries. Better to act now.