Merkel is said to want hundreds of thousands of refugees brought directly from Middle East to control numbers and avoid perilous journeys
Germany is to push for more ambitious and extensive common European Union policies on the refugee crisis, according to policymakers in Berlin, with compulsory and permanent quotas for sharing the distribution of probably hundreds of thousands of people who will arrive directly from the Middle East.
Also on Berlin’s agenda are new European powers replacing some national authority over border control, and the possible raising of a special EU-wide levy to fund the policies.
The plans, being prepared in Berlin and Brussels, are certain to trigger bitter resistance and major clashes within the EU. Berlin backs European commission plans to make the proposed scheme “permanent and binding”. But up to 15 of 28 EU countries are opposed.
The plans will not apply to the UK as it is not part of the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone and has opted out of EU asylum policy, saying it will not take part in any proposed European refugee-sharing schemes.
Angela Merkel appears determined to prevail, as she grapples with a crisis that will likely define her political legacy. The German chancellor is said to be angry with the governments of eastern and central Europe which are strongly opposed to being forced to take in refugees. She is said to resent that these EU member states are pleading for “solidarity” against the threats posed by Russia and Vladimir Putin while they resist sharing the burdens posed by the refugee crisis.
EU government leaders agreed last month to share responsibility for 160,000 asylum seekers already in the EU, redistributing them from Greece and Italy over two years. But the decision had to be pushed to a majority vote, overruling the dissenters, mainly in eastern Europe, and with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, accusing Merkel of “moral imperialism”.
It is highly unusual in the EU for sensitive issues with such deep national political impact to be settled by majority voting. But Berlin appears prepared to do this if no consensus can be reached.
The opponents of quotas insist last month’s decision was a one-off. But according to policymakers in Berlin, Merkel now wants to go further, shifting the emphasis of burden-sharing from redistribution of refugees inside the EU to those collecting en masse in other countries, notably Turkey, where more than 2 million Syrians are being hosted.
Under one proposal being circulated in Berlin, the EU would strike pacts with third countries, such as Turkey, agreeing to take large but unspecified numbers of refugees from them directly into Europe. In return, the third country would need to agree on a ceiling or a cap for the numbers it can send to Europe and commit to keeping all other migrants and refugees, and accommodate them humanely. This effectively means Europe would be financing large refugee camps in those third countries, which will also be obliged to take back any refugees who are not granted asylum in Europe.
Merkel returned from talks on the issue with the Turkish leadership on Sunday seemingly convinced that Ankara was the key to her winning some relief on the toxic immigration issue. She is being criticised for ignoring human rights problems in her dealings with Turkey’s authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But according to people familiar with her thinking, she has concluded that, in terms of Turkey, the main third country source of migrants heading for Europe, interests trump values.
The plans being developed in Berlin and Brussels also include moves to “Europeanise” control of the EU’s external borders. This would entail national governments surrendering some of their powers on those frontiers and granting at least some authority over refugee admissions, detentions and deportation to EU bodies such as Frontex, the fledgling borders agency.
Some senior diplomats and officials in Brussels say this is an intrusion into national sovereignty which will be difficult for some governments to accept. Policymakers in Berlin are aware of the sensitivities, but appear of a mind to proceed by stealth in small steps.
They take the view that the refugee crisis is by definition a Europe-wide emergency that can only be tackled by broader and concerted European policies. The new approaches being considered are also likely to prove expensive. In Bavaria, in southern Germany, for example, the influx of newcomers means the authorities are scrambling to create 3,000 extra school classes with all the attendant staffing and space problems.
Merkel is said to appreciate the sensitivity and the difficulty of the plans being drawn up and is likely to proceed cautiously in phases. She is understood to believe that the crisis will get worse and that the deterioration will bring her opponents round to the merits of her arguments.
Berlin expects at least 1 million refugees in Germany this year and Merkel is facing growing domestic criticism of her open-door policies.
The European commission is calling for a “permanent mechanism” for refugee sharing across Europe. Berlin appears to stand 100% behind the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, on this. But an EU summit last week avoided discussing the permanent scheme because it is too divisive and contentious.
Forced to bow to the sharing of 160,000 refugees last month, several EU leaders took the view that this was a limited and temporary move that would not be repeated. But for Berlin, it is but a beginning in the formulation of pan-European asylum and immigration policies.
On Wednesday Juncker called a Brussels summit for Sunday for some EU and Balkan leaders to tackle the crisis in Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria since Hungary closed its borders to those arriving in the EU from Turkey and Greece via the Balkans.
The German push for taking people directly from places such as Turkey has the merit of cutting out of many of the smuggling rackets prospering from the mass movements and reducing the numbers of those risking the hazardous journeys from the Middle East to the borders of Europe. But it is far from clear that the plan to persuade third-country governments to agree to enforce a ceiling on the numbers allowed to go to the EU can work.
According to the thinking in Berlin, if the new package of policies must involve a European solution rather than a mish-mash of national strategies, it will also have to be financed at the European level, possibly through a special levy, since the billions involved would blow a gaping hole in the existing EU budget and national governments would balk at footing the bills.