Is the EU migration crisis coming to an end?

Solon Ardittis / Oct 2016

Ahmet Davutoglu, prime minister of Turkey, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Photo: European Union

At least four reports published by the European Commission over the past week suggest that considerable progress might have been made to scale down some of the most fractious causes and effects of the so-called migrant crisis since 2015. These reports relate to the implementation of the EU relocation and resettlement schemes; the establishment of temporary internal border controls in five Schengen member states and the measures taken by Greece to resume its implementation of the Dublin rules; and the performance of the EU-Turkey migration agreement to date.

Despite the outcome of the Hungarian referendum on 2 October, and its possible ripple effect in a number of other member states, there is a distinct feeling in reading these reports and in listening to their presentation by senior EU officials, that the management of the EU migrant crisis might have gained significant ground since the initial set of largely reactive and piecemeal measures was first deployed in the autumn of 2015.

Is this perception justified and if so to what extent?

The EU Relocation and resettlement schemes still unfolding in dribs and drabs

On the EU Relocation Plan, the latest report published by the European Commission on 28 September – one year exactly after a legally binding Decision establishing a temporary and exceptional relocation mechanism from Greece and Italy was adopted – describes a ‘significant acceleration of relocation’ over the past few weeks. Is the EU Relocation plan about to be fulfilled then? Not quite. To date, only 5,651 asylum seekers were relocated from Greece and Italy, out of a legally binding pledge to relocate 160,000 people by September 2017. The intra-EU distribution of such disappointing figures is also worthy of notice, with France alone having accepted over 30% of the total relocations to date, and with Denmark, Hungary and Poland having accepted none.

The chances of the EU fulfilling its promise to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy by September 2017 are therefore particularly slim. This is particularly so after the informal meeting of the 27 heads of state or government in Bratislava on 16 September, where the four Visegrad countries issued a joint statement stressing that migration policy should now be based on the principle of “flexible” and ‘voluntary” solidarity and that member states should decide on specific forms of contribution based on their experience and potential. It is also at the same meeting that Chancellor Angela Merkel recognised for the first time in public that the relocation plan had so far encountered some ‘serious obstacles’ and that the time had come to ‘envision new approaches’, and that President Martin Schulz admitted that the mandatory refugee relocation system had failed.

The system now appears even more threatened by the results of the Hungarian referendum of 2 October, with close to 100% of the voters rejecting the EU mandatory migrant quotas. Despite its lack of legal validity in both Hungary and the EU, the referendum is unlikely to strengthen the case for a continuation of the relocation scheme in its current form and shape.

In terms of resettlement from outside the EU, 10,695 people, mostly from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have been resettled until 26 September 2016 under the EU resettlement scheme adopted on 20 July 2015. While the number of resettlements from Turkey is beginning to increase slightly, the overall performance of the plan to date is again very sub-optimal. It is also in sharp contrast to the outcome of the ‘Leaders’ Summit on Refugees’ organised by President Obama on 20 September, where more than 30 countries agreed to double the number of resettlement places. However, given that these pledges are all part of a ‘non-binding declaration’, unlike the mandatory nature of the EU’s current relocation policy, doubts abound about the extent to which they are likely to materialise.

Based on the above trends, it can easily be inferred that EU solidarity policy in the field of migration and refugee affairs is undergoing a profound state of reconstruction. Solidarity and responsibility sharing in this sensitive policy area are likely to draw increasingly on a more fragmented, unpredictable and bottom up set of principles and modus operandi, based on voluntary initiatives by member states, as well as by local authorities, the private sector and civil society, who are likely to play a growing role in supporting selected relocation and resettlement measures.

No return to a full Schengen system in the foreseeable future

On 12 May 2016, the safeguard procedure foreseen by Article 29 of the Schengen Borders Code was used by five Schengen member states (Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway) to re-establish temporary internal border controls for a maximum period of six months. This is in addition to other member states that have introduced emergency controls occasionally on a unilateral basis.

The progress report published by the European Commission on 28 September suggests that border controls in the five countries have remained limited to specific border sections and to identified threats, and that there has been a diminishing trend in both the number of persons to whom entry was refused, and the number of asylum applications received.

However, while temporary internal border controls are due to come to an end on 12 November 2016, persisting migration challenges in the five member states strongly reduce the likelihood of any of them agreeing to resume the application of normal Schengen rules rather than requesting a prolongation of the safeguard procedure foreseen by Article 29.

At the same time, Dublin transfers to Greece, which have been suspended since 2011 following two judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) which identified ‘systemic deficiencies’ in the Greek asylum system, are due to resume in January 2017. While considerable progress has been made by the Greek authorities to implement a number of the Commission’s recommendations designed to re-establish the country’s capacity to apply the Dublin rules, many weaknesses persist. These relate in particular to the number and quality of reception facilities, to effective access to the asylum procedure and to appeals. The situation of unaccompanied minors is also a major cause for concern, due to a shortage of appropriate facilities.

While a number of member states are now calling for Greece to be reinstated in the Dublin system despite the number of challenges the country continues to face, there seems to be limited rationale for this to happen before the forthcoming Dublin reform is in place and has introduced the long-waited ‘corrective fairness mechanism’ that will address situations of disproportionate pressure on individual member states.

The EU-Turkey migration agreement still hobbling along

While there has been intense criticism by NGOs and a number of experts about its legality, there is little doubt that the EU-Turkey agreement on migration has largely delivered on its promises so far. According to the latest report on the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement published on 28 September, the average daily arrival of migrants from Turkey to Greece is now around 80, compared with almost 2,900 at the height of the crisis in June-September 2015.

Despite unconfirmed claims that both Greece and the EU might have finalised Plans B in the event Turkey suspends its commitments, the EU-Turkey agreement appears to hold. There is also increased speculation about the EU eventually agreeing to grant a visa-free regime to Turkish nationals by the end of the year, thus securing the viability of the EU-Turkey agreement.

Ironically, the one element in recent EU migration policy that had raised the strongest criticism because it implied the outsourcing of the bloc’s immigration management doctrine to a potentially unreliable third country, is now the one that appears to have been the most effective in curbing the levels of uncontrolled migration that had been experienced since 2015.

The EU migration crisis might not be over yet, and EU officials might be over-optimistic about the level of progress achieved to date, it remains that the range of measures now in place and the overall state of preparedness of member states to address future migration challenges bear no resemblance to the environment prevailing in the autumn of 2015. The official launch this week of the European Border and Coast Guard agency should allow for further efficiency tests to be performed in the coming months and might even contribute to restoring trust in the EU’s ability to manage its borders by some of its most defiant member states.


Solon Ardittis

Solon Ardittis

October 2016

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