Migration is a chess game inside the EU: checkmate or stalemate?

On Sunday June 24th, an informal meeting on the hot topic of migration has taken place in Bruxelles, two weeks ahead of the official summit, following the need of a review of current regulation on border security and refugee distribution system of Dublin III. This particular agreement – entered into form in 2014 – states the obligation of the country of first arrival (where the fingerprints of asylum seekers are first registered) to process the request of asylum and has put under great pressure the countries on the external borders of the EU (Italy, Greece, Spain, Hungary).

At the meeting, the presence of strong-on-immigration countries that form the Visegrad Group, a transnational organization that includes the likes of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, was not expected. The group feels as if the proposals of redistribution with a fixed quota system are not suitable to their policies, in fact, as Hungary prime minister Orban expressed it: “We understand that countries deal with internal political challenges, but this mustn’t result in pan-European hastiness, because that only breeds chaos”.

Germany and the Kanzlerin Merkel, in the midst of a government crisis due to the fracture between her party, the CDU, and the Bavarian counterparts, CSU, on migration, are pushing for a stricter redistribution of refugee, limiting their possibilities of crossing internal state borders, in order to please the country’s interior minister – and CSU party leader – Seehofer and prevent the collapse of the government. The resolution, supported by French President Macron, didn’t enter into discussion – an unprecedented situation for a proposal of the powerful French-German bloc – as it wasn’t going to be accepted by the new Italian governments: migrants rescued by the Italian coast guard, and screened in the country, wouldn’t be able to move freely in the Schengen bloc, making the policies of rejection of France and Austria legal.

In fact, on Friday 23rd, the media leaked that newly appointed Italian Premier Conte was going to join the Visegrad countries in their boycott of the meeting, but the Prime Minister himself cleared the situation by stating that he was to participate, after reassurance from Merkel that the draft spread out was going to be put aside and a new one was going to be discussed at the meeting.

The German Chancellor scrapped the agreement with Macron – defining it a “misunderstanding”-  fearing a clash with Italy and its Interior Minister Salvini, closely tied with Mr. Seehofer. The reaction of the France President was angry, as he defined the rise of populism in EU as “a bit like a leprosy all across Europe, in countries where we thought that would be impossible to see them again, in neighboring countries,” Macron said. “They’re saying the worst things, and we’re getting used to it. They’re making provocations, and nobody is horrified by that”.

Nevertheless, the proposal of the new Italian government is the one to be talked over. It was defined as an “integral, multilevel approach that conjugates rights and responsibilities” and was developed with a focus on the primary movements (migrants arriving to the EU for the first time), as it is the main problem for the Southern European countries. The plan is articulated through 10 points, spanning from an intensified relationship with African countries such as Libya and Niger, protection centers for refugees in transit countries, reinforcement of the external boundaries, the sharing of responsibilities both of the castaways and of the people arriving, and the establishment of quotas for economic migrants.

At the official European Council of Thursday 28th June, conclusions were drawn, but they produced mixed reactions. The first 12 points of the resolution verted on migration and it was stressed the fact that the control of immigrants’ flows is a European, not a national, problem. It was recognized that the Central and Eastern Mediterranean Routes are still the main paths migrants follow to enter the Union and that it is necessary to reinforce the control and patrol of both European and Northern African forces.

It seems like change is coming, although slowly and hesitant, as the attention is shifting from trying to save and shelter people, both asylum seekers and economic migrants, to trying to dissuade people from leaving their country with the help of smugglers and human traffickers, hence limiting the risk of shipwreck and death in the sea. But the countries did not manage to reach an agreement on the Dublin Treaty, that lives, criticized, to this day, and all the action and measures taken will stand only on a voluntary basis, thus leaving the situation de facto unchanged.

Seehofer and the Visegrad countries also got their own (shaky) win: the EU council encourage members to take action against secondary movements, with internal legislative and administrative measures, but only on the second-to-last point on migration. The Italian Government also is convinced that things are starting to go their way, as the EU specifically stated that “All vessels operating in the Mediterranean must respect the applicable laws and not obstruct operations of the Libyan Coastguard”, thus supporting their position regarding the role of NGOs in the smuggling of people in Europe. The stronger stance of Europe on migration represents a victory for Italian Government and the threat of vetoing the entire resolution, posed by Italian PM Conte, seems to have worked.

In the end, the council proved inconclusive: no real action was taken. Still, this marks a change in the way the European Union manages the migration problem because it stopped the season of acceptance of unregulated immigration and it started a new one that casts some doubts on the efficiency of the previous one.

Now more than ever, the theme of immigration is key to understand the short and long-term future of the EU. The next few weeks will determine whether the basis of solidarity and common responsibility, on which the European Union is founded, is sound enough to resist the newly-found diversity of the countries that compose it.

(Pietro Bologna)

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