Could the refugee crisis really break up the European Union?

More than a million migrants and refugees came to Europe last year, mostly via Turkey

Today’s 43 new deaths by drowning in the Aegean Sea brought Europe’s migration crisis sharply back into focus just as the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, warned that unless the flow of refugees is better managed, it could cause the break-up of the European Union.

How serious is the refugee crisis?

More than a million migrants and refugees came to Europe last year, mostly via Turkey. Although winter was expected to slow the pace, 35,000 have arrived in the first three weeks of January, compared with 1,600 for the whole month last year.

How has the EU responded?

There have been many initiatives since last spring, and EU leaders have discussed the issue at six separate summits, but most measures have been inadequate or slow, or both. They include relocation and resettlement efforts, a new border control police, and a deal with Turkey to stop refugees heading to Europe. 

What went wrong with relocation?

The plan to relocate 160,000 people more evenly across the EU was immediately controversial, as eastern countries like Hungary pointed out that refugees wanted to go to Berlin, not Budapest. The results are pitiful: only 331 have been relocated since September. The plans to resettle refugees from outside Europe have not been much better: only 779 of the 5,331 due in 2015 had been effectively resettled.

What is being done to police the EU’s borders?

Last month, EU leaders backed plans for a European Border and Coast Guard, aimed mainly at Greece and Italy, where most refugees have landed. It would ensure asylum-seekers are screened and register before a decision is taken on whether they can stay. It will come too late for most leaders. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “We need to get a grip on this issue in the next six to eight weeks.”

Can Turkey help?

The EU signed a €3bn (£2.3bn) deal with Turkey aimed at stemming the flow. Turkey is hosting 2.2 million refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war zones. But EU finance ministers have yet to agree who should pay; EU officials complain Turkey is not playing its part and Ankara says the €3bn isn’t enough.

Does migration hurt Europe?

Economically, it is a boon: an IMF report on Wednesday said EU states that take in the most people will get the biggest windfall – worth an extra 1.1 per cent growth in Austria, Germany, and Sweden by 2020. Migrants may also fill the demographic shortfall from Europe’s shrinking population. The EU’s active labour force of 240 million would fall to 207 million by 2050, even if migration runs at the present level. If it halts, the workforce would shrink to 169 million. 

Why did Germany open and then close its doors? 

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, earned world-wide praise for inviting Syrian refugees to come to her country. But a political backlash at home forced her to change tack, closing Germany’s borders. The mood has further soured after New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne, blamed on Muslim migrants. 

Will the crisis bring  Europe’s borders back?

The passport-free Schengen zone across much of the EU is being severely tested. Six countries – Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark and non-EU member Norway – have reintroduced temporary border checks. The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warns dismantling Schengen would cost £2.3bn a year in lost business. The European Council President Donald Tusk says unless the EU makes progress in the next two months, Schengen could fail.

What about Greece, the weak link in the refugee trail? 

Under EU rules, asylum-seekers must register in the first safe country they reach. But this “Dublin” regulation put huge administrative burdens on Greece and Italy, and is widely ignored: most refugees arrive on deserted beaches and travel by land to countries like Germany and Sweden. A rule change due in March may replace this with a quota system.

Would this mean more migrants come to Britain?

It’s unlikely to affect the relatively few asylum-seekers who enter the UK, which has no land border with Europe and retains border checks. Britain has an opt-out on asylum policy, so could choose not to apply it. Britain’s share of asylum claims has fallen to 3.5 per cent last year. But it would mean renegotiating the associated rules under which Britain returns 1,000 migrants a year to the country where they first arrived. 

Could this all affect Britain’s renegotiation with the EU?

David Cameron aims to cut the number of EU citizens travelling to Britain to work, not asylum-seekers. But the crisis plays into the hands of those seeking the UK’s withdrawal.

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