The refugee crisis and how to handle it has occupied the agenda of Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission presidency. It has been less than a year since he took office, during which time Europe has been plunged into the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
It is no surprise therefore that the crisis was given such prominence in Juncker’s first State of the Union address. Since October 2013 when more than 300 people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, the number of people dying at the borders of the EU has been staggering.
The refugee crisis has amplified existing tensions in the EU and particularly between the European Commission and member states. Some are committed to using the current situation and what they see as a failure to protect EU borders to renegotiate their position in the EU, claim back powers from Brussels and appease growing nationalist forces at home.
Hungary is building a four metre-high fence along its border with Serbia to keep migrants and refugees from crossing its territory. Relations between nationals and the refugees who have entered the country are becoming tense.
Meanwhile, the UK is sending fencing material and sniffer dogs to Calais to keep a relatively small number of migrants from trying to cross from France to the UK via the Channel tunnel.
Juncker questioned how effective such measures are, both practically and morally, when he said:
We can build walls, we can build fences. But imagine for a second it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay, there is no wall you would not climb, no sea you would not sail, no border you would not cross if it is war or the barbarism of the so-called Islamic State that you are fleeing.
In keeping with this tone, Juncker sought to shift the debate away from borders and security and towards asylum, solidarity and responsibility. He referred to a new EU-wide border management system and legal channel for economic migrants but the headline news was his call to significantly increase the number of places being offered on the relocation scheme for asylum seekers.
He called for quotas to be expanded from 40,000 to 160,000 and for member states to allow asylum seekers to work and earn from day one of their arrival in Europe. He also wants to make a fundamental change of the Dublin system that requires that asylum applications be dealt with by the first country of entry. Details on this are scarce at the moment but he called for greater unity in the EU’s approach.
On top of this, he argued that European governments should be able to fast-track asylum applications from people leaving certain countries that are considered more safe to live in – such as Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey. This, he suggested, would enable them to focus their efforts on applicants who are more likely to gain asylum, such as those from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea who currently have asylum recognition rate equal to or higher than 75%.
But, as the commissioner is well aware, the member states have not been particularly helpful so far. “I really hope that this time everyone will be on board. No poems, no rhetoric” he told the European Parliament.
The main question for him and his team is whether this call for action will shake the torpor of member states. Juncker has presented a coherent set of proposals but individual governments have taken a pick-and-choose approach before, such as when they failed to offer as many places as Juncker hoped through the EU migration agenda in May.
Sorry, not today
As evidence of the challenges the commission has to face, it is worth noting that just as Juncker was calling on EU member states to contribute to the relocation scheme for 160,000 asylum seekers in Strasburg, David Cameron was declaring, over in London, that the UK would not be taking part in the scheme.
The British prime minister, whose relationship with Juncker is notoriously frosty, said that focusing on quotas won’t solve the problem “and it actually sends a message that it is a good idea to get on a boat and make that perilous journey”.
The UK plan,launched earlier in the week, instead involves the resettlement of 20,000 refugees over five years and will only include refugees from camps in the region around Syria, currently over 4 millions. This, according to a disingenuous Cameron counts “an enormous national exercise”.
Cameron was the first to shuffle away from the responsibilities laid at his door by Juncker, but he is unlikely to be the last.