How to respond to "Europe's biggest challenge since the Second World War"

10 September 2015

Lurching from one emergency summit to the next, you could be forgiven for thinking that Europe's leaders have been struggling to deal with the many challenges that have recently been thrown their way. Like the Greek debt crisis which threatened the future of the euro, the unprecedented influx of migrants in the EU is yet another question that both the EU and its Member States have so far struggled to resolve.

Infighting between the EU institutions has escalated at a similar pace to the crisis itself. European Council President Donald Tusk recently received ire from MEPs for not attending yesterday's Parliamentary debate, with the head of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Guy Verhofstadt, calling it "incomprehensible" that the head of the European Council "did not seem to understand that he has a key role to play in solving the crisis". Equally, Member States have been just as quick to blame each other, and Brussels, for the lack of a coordinated response.

Speaking in the European Parliament yesterday, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attempted to regain leadership of a situation that had seemingly spun out of control, undermining citizens' faith in the EU's ability to effectively respond to humanitarian emergencies. Alluding to the fractious behaviour of EU Member States, he called for an end to "finger pointing" and the need to defend the fundamental European value of the right to asylum.

What has been proposed?

New proposals to deal with the situation, which were formally announced yesterday and are due to be debated by national Ministers next week, include measures to establish a temporary crisis relocation mechanism. This mechanism is intended to provide a fair distribution of asylum seekers throughout the Member States according to their capacity to receive applicants. In addition to previous commitments, this would bring the total number of people relocated to 160,000, and aims to reduce pressure on the countries receiving the highest numbers of applicants: namely Italy, Greece and Hungary.

Also on the table are a permanent crisis relocation mechanism, an action plan on return, and a common EU list of safe countries of origin which would include the Balkan states and Turkey. The proposals further the EU Agenda on Migration, which sets out plans for relocation and resettlement, and an EU Action Plan against migrant smugglers tabled in May. The United Kingdom has so far distanced itself from the scheme, but the proposals clearly offer an opt-in should David Cameron have a change of heart.

How have the new plans been received?

Somewhat predictably, the European Parliament has been divided in response to the proposals. The rift was made more obvious at yesterday's plenary session, during which some MEPs chose to bear placards stating “refugees welcome”, in stark contrast to those who preferred to promote the slogan “nationalists unite”. Despite these publicity stunts, Parliament's main political groups were broadly in favour of the proposals, with Chair of the Socialists and Democrats, Gianni Pittella, going as far to praise the "beginnings of convergence" among the parties.

Notable criticisms of the policies came from groups on the right and left of the chamber. Ignazio Corrao representing the European Freedom and Democracy Group claimed the EU was powerless to have an impact on what was an area of competence for Member States. While, in contrast, Marina Albiol Guzmán of the European United Left linked the refugee crisis with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and warned that the situation would not improve if the use of drone strikes against Isis targets in Syria was to continue.

Several other actors have also criticised the plans for being simply insufficient to respond to the scale of the problem. Anne Brasseur, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), who previously said that at official meetings in New York she had been met with "polite incredulity" at the absence of a coherent European response, is unlikely to be satisfied with proposals. Following their publication yesterday, PACE’s own Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons described the plans as "inadequate" for dealing with the "300,000 refugees arriving and travelling through Europe".

What happens now?

During yesterday's debate, Luxembourg Minister Nicolas Schmit praised the proposals which he said took into account current challenges and the scale of the problems. If his comments are anything to go by, EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers are likely to welcome the initiatives when they meet in Luxembourg next Monday. They will be keen to form a consistent EU response to the growing demands for asylum, which will in turn feed in to EU leaders' discussions during the meeting of the European Council in October.

Leaders will hope to then bring a coordinated EU response to the table of the international summit on migration issues taking place in Valletta on 11 and 12 November, during which talks are likely to focus on assistance and readmission agreements with African countries. 

Adam Bowering
EU Policy Analyst

Based in Brussels, Adam leads on healthcare, foreign affairs and development issues. He has previously worked for the European Parliament and EU public affairs consultancies, and has been with DeHavilland EU for three years.