Every area of policy being discussed is hotly contested and the likelihood is high that the actions following the summit will fail to match the rhetoric
EU leaders will gather in Brussels on Thursday evening for a tense and gloomy summit aimed at conveying the impression they know what they are doing about the refugee and migration crisis.
The main purpose, according to senior officials and diplomats in Brussels involved in preparing the fourth summit on the crisis this year, is to avoid a major row and the kind of recrimination between leaders that characterised previous meetings.
The summit will launch a big push for a deal with Turkey, the main source of the 700,000 people who have entered the EU this year. Germany’s Angela Merkel will travel to Istanbul on Sunday for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan two weeks before a Turkish general election.
The chances of a meaningful pact with Ankara are slim in the short-term and would almost certainly entail Europe agreeing to take hundreds of thousands of Syrians from among more than two million hosted by Turkey. But unless Merkel insists on highlighting this issue, the summit will avoid it because it would provoke conflict between EU governments.
“We won’t be making any major decisions here,” predicted a senior diplomat in Brussels.
A second senior diplomat said: “The purpose is to improve the mood on this very toxic issue. I’m not sure we’ll be able to give a positive answer, but we can’t afford a clear message of failure.”
A senior official taking part in the summit admitted that the leaders do not have answers to the crisis, “only questions”.
The summit will deliver robust language on:
- New repressive measures aimed at shoring up the EU’s external borders.
- Detention of refugees and migrants while their asylum claims are being processed.
- Attempts to replace national powers over frontiers by new European agencies.
- A drive to cajole and coerce third countries into keeping migrants at home and hosting those from elsewhere in transit to Europe.
Merkel told the Bundestag in Berlin on Thursday that she would use the summit to fight “decisively” for “pan-European processes” on immigration.
But every area of policy being discussed is hotly contested. The likelihood is high that the actions following the summit will fail to match the rhetoric.
The European commission and Germany are pushing for a new asylum and immigration regime under which successful asylum claimants would be shared across the union on a binding and permanent basis.
The issue is so divisive, especially in eastern Europe, that the topic will probably be avoided. The commission will also propose a new system of European borders and coastguards, beefing up the Warsaw-based Frontex agency to police the external frontiers.
“I can’t say there is big optimism,” said one of the diplomats. “There is a strong feeling that protection of external borders is the competence of the countries. Very many want to state their reservations.”
Many governments are keen to see European deployments at the main refugee entry points on the Greek islands and in southern Italy, but do not want them on their own borders.
“It’s a constitutional question in all member states,” said the second diplomat. “This is an issue of primary national sovereignty.”
A senior German official said Berlin wanted the proposed “permanent mechanism” for sharing refugees on the summit agenda, but also appeared to concede that the resistance meant this would not happen.
He said Frontex needed around 1,000 new staff seconded from national governments. Last week the agency asked for 775. So far, 48 have been pledged from six countries.
“There’s no majority for replacing national border guards with European ones,” said the senior official.
There is also confusion and dispute over new methods of dealing with the influx, focused on the idea of “hotspots” where new arrivals in Greece and Italy are to be registered and fingerprinted.
The Germans and others want these facilities – the first one is operating on the Italian island of Lampedusa; another is to open next week on the Greek island of Lesbos – to be camps where people are detained while being screened and their claims vetted. The Italians say they don’t want to host “concentration camps”. The Greeks, too, are unsure, and are also resisting EU proposals for joint sea patrols with the Turks in the Aegean.
Merkel said the narrow sea channel separating Greece and Turkey was in the hands of the smuggling rackets. “We need a big capacity for first reception [of migrants],” said the German government source. “We need first reception capacities where people can stay. Registration alone doesn’t work.”
Amid the frictions in almost all areas of immigration policy, there are high-level fears that mainstream leaders are losing the plot and making things easier for the far right and the hard left to set the agenda.
“You have a lot of political machos in the member states waiting to get into power to implement their ideas,” said a senior EU source.
The Eurasia Group risk consultancy said: “The migrant crisis will continue to dominate the EU’s political agenda. This will exacerbate all of the EU’s existing challenges, as nationalism surges and the space for political and policy action by mainstream governments becomes further constrained. Politics in Europe become more toxic and divisive.”
A national ambassador to the EU said: “We’re running the risk of losing our populations in Europe. In many cases we’re running against majority [public opinion].”