Refugee crisis: How Europe's alarming lack of unity over the issue could bring about the break up of the EU

As thousands clamour to be admitted to safety, Germany and Sweden offer welcome, some Eastern European nations will let in only 'Christians,' and Britain tries, as usual, to make and play by its own rules

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The Independent Online

A three-year-old refugee child drowns while trying to reach the safety of a muddled and largely unwelcoming EU. Syrian refugee families are herded on and off trains in Budapest. Other refugees have their arms marked with identity numbers by Czech police. Razor-wire fences are built in Hungary – and in Calais.

Germany (stiff, unyielding Germany) says: “Never mind the rules. Let them all come in.”  So does Sweden. Some East European countries say: “Only Christian refugees are welcome; and not too many of those please.” Italy and Greece, swamped by refugees, demand more help from their partners. France and Austria vacillate. Spain says that it has problems enough.

Britain tries, as usual, to make and play by its own rules.

North vs south; east vs west; Britain vs the rest; German leadership or German dominance. The refugee crisis is like a diabolical stress test devised to expose simultaneously all the moral and political fault lines of the European Union.

The EU was born out of calamity. Over the last six decades, its policies have often been forged by resolving conflicts between member states.

And yet this crisis seems more profound, more acute, more tangled, more poisonous, than any that has gone before. It is not about currencies or net contributions or farm subsidies but about the core issues of common humanity and solidarity that the EU claims to epitomise.

The refugee crisis coincides with, and threatens to complicate, other existential challenges: Greek debt and the survival of the eurozone; EU reform and Britain’s in/out referendum next year. 

“The world is watching us,” the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week. “If Europe fails on the refugee question, its close bond with universal human rights will be destroyed, and it will no longer be the Europe we dreamed of.” Open continental borders, one of the greatest of EU achievements, may be destroyed, Chancellor Merkel warned, unless the crisis is rapidly resolved.  

It is absurd to blame the EU for being “divided”. All the countries in Europe, and many political parties and many families, are split on how we should respond to the greatest refugee crisis on our continent for 70 years. There are no easy answers. The problem will grow even larger in the months and maybe years ahead. How could the EU not also be divided? Some of the divisions reflect genuine and honourable divergences in analysis and strategy, in geography or economic strength. Other statements hint at darker forces of extreme nationalism and racial intolerance.

Disagreement is one thing. Irreconcilable differences are another.

Chancellor Merkel, the technocratic wicked fairy of the Grexit saga, has become the humanitarian good fairy of the refugee calamity. And yet her moral leadership is seen by some other EU governments – and not just in the east – as quixotic and foolhardy. Her open-hearted position on refugees is just as Germanocentric, they say, as her unyielding approach to Greece.

The crisis will also have a direct impact on the negotiations on EU reform before the British referendum. David Cameron’s amended position – Britain will take 20,000 Syrian refugees from Middle Eastern camps over five years but not those already in the EU – has infuriated some other European governments.

Mr Cameron’s stance fails to address the fact that over 300,000 refugees are already in Europe – and that more are arriving every day. Britain’s go-it-alone attitude will be challenged at what looks certain to be a tempestuous meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels next Monday and a summit next month. There will also be enormous pressure on the Eastern European countries which are refusing to take all but Christian refugees.

The European Union was made, and often shaped, in crisis. Has a crisis arrived which might finally break it apart?

EU governments have a legal framework to deal with asylum-seekers: the Dublin Convention signed in 1990, which took effect in 1997.  In broad terms, any refugee who arrives on EU soil must apply for asylum in the country where he or she first sets foot. The intention was to stop refugees from “asylum shopping” from one EU country to the next.

The system has never worked properly. Over the past two years it has buckled under the flood of African and Middle Eastern refugees across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece and, more recently, the mass migration of Syrian and Balkan refugees into Hungary and Bulgaria. 

The southern and eastern EU countries complained that the Dublin rules saddled them with almost the entire burden of cross-Mediterranean migration. The northern countries expressed sympathy but did little.

Some, such as Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, agreed to take some of the asylum-seekers. Other, such as France, erected obstacles at their southern frontiers (against the spirit of Schengen) to stop the refugees or migrants from coming north.

Many came north anyway. Some of them – but only a tiny fraction of the whole – piled up in Calais as they sought to enter Britain.

This summer the Dublin rules finally collapsed under the weight of the mass migration of Syrians, Kosovans and others through the Balkans to Hungary. The right-wing Hungarian government was left with an impossible situation that it did not handle well.

It built a razor-wire fence along its Serbian border; its police harassed and mistreated Syrian refugees. It stopped them leaving for Austria and Germany and then changed its mind.

But what was Budapest supposed to do?

Under the Dublin rules, it was supposed to stop the migrants from entering the EU en masse; it was supposed to question those who arrived at its frontier and start asylum procedures for those genuinely considered to be fleeing war or oppression. It was not properly equipped to do either.

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban inflamed the situation by talking of a Muslim “invasion of Europe” and suggesting that “only Christian refugees” should be allowed to settle in Hungary. The Czech and Slovak governments have also refused to accept non-Christians. The Poles have been a little more generous.

Last month, Germany became the first country to state the obvious. The Dublin convention was dead. A new EU-wide asylum policy was needed. In future, Berlin announced, it would accept Syrian asylum-seekers even if they had already passed through another EU country. Chancellor Merkel said that Germany expected to receive 800,000 asylum-seekers this year. She called on other EU countries to accept a rejected European Commission plan for permanent quotas for the sharing of asylum-seekers according to each country’s size and economic strength.

Germany, she implied, was prepared to do the most; it was not prepared to carry the burden alone. Unlike most other EU leaders, she was not caught out by the tidal wave of anger and emotion created last week by a photograph of a drowned three-year-old boy on a Turkish beach.

The French President, François Hollande, has now come down from the fence where he had been perched for months. Having previously refused any automatic and permanent system for dividing refugees, he has joined Germany and Italy in supporting the Brussels quota plan.

The Eastern European countries remain adamantly opposed.

For the Eastern Europeans, this is a first big moral and political test of their EU membership. The European Union was sold in Eastern Europe as a source of funds and opportunities – not a source of moral obligations or shared burdens.

Germany, the East Europeans say, needs refugees to boost its flagging population. Other European countries already have mixed Christian-Muslim populations. But we, on the EU’s eastern borders, do not.

With the hard, nationalist right increasingly strong in such countries – and in power in Hungary – this position will be difficult for other EU governments to break down next week.

One German official told The Independent: “Until now, the Eastern Europeans had had many advantages in terms of investment and free movement for their young people. It is time for them to accept that they have to participate, within reason, in a decision by the whole of Europe to deal with this humanitarian catastrophe.”

The whole of Europe? Enter: David Cameron. Mr Cameron says he will accept more Syrian refugees – but not those who have already made their way to the EU. Giving them asylum places in Britain would, he argues, reward people-trafficking gangs and tempt even more refugees to attempt the perilous sea journey to Europe.

There may be some cold logic to that argument, but it amounts to abandoning the refugee-besieged southern and eastern EU countries. The Greek island of Lesbos alone has 15,000 mostly Syrian refugees – as many as Britain is ready to accept in three years.

Mr Cameron argues that Britain has an exemption from EU migration policy. The European Commission accepts this, in principle.

At Monday’s meeting, Brussels will propose a mandatory division of 120,000 refugees already in the EU – on top of 40,000 already allocated voluntarily. The UN insists that a realistic total would be nearer to 250,000. Even this figure will be overtaken in the coming months as some of the Syrian refugees in Middle Eastern camps (four million in all) are attracted by the prospect of a new life in Europe.

The Brussels plan also includes better EU controls at external frontiers, including holding camps where bona fide refugees will be separated from economic migrants (who will in theory be sent home).

For the time being, the Commission suggests that Germany should take 31,443 more refugees (only three days’ supply at the present rate of arrival in the Federal Republic). France should take 24,031, Spain 14,931, Poland 9,278, Romania 4,646, the Czech Republic 2,978 and so on.

Britain would be “ordered” to take none but would be “invited” to take part voluntarily. If we refuse, we will be asked to pay towards the cost of housing the refugees elsewhere.

France and Germany would have been angered by Mr Cameron’s position in any circumstances. If Britain finds itself next Monday in a de facto anti-quota bloc with the Eastern Europeans – giving significant weight to their position – Ms Merkel, for one, will be profoundly angry. She has already warned, indirectly, that in these circumstances she would feel no great need to “save” Britain’s membership of the EU by making concessions before the in/out referendum.

France takes a similar view. A senior official said: “Our position all along has been that we will help Cameron to keep Britain in the EU but we will not accept a situation where Britain has all the advantages of membership and none of the responsibilities. That is precisely what Cameron is demanding on the refugee question.”

As it struggles with its greatest ever humanitarian test, the EU is in danger of being wrenched apart. Outright break-up is improbable. More likely there will be an acrimonious acceleration of the existing trend towards scission into a “core” and “periphery” – with Britain and Eastern Europe left in an outer or second division.

In those circumstances, it may not matter much whether Britain votes to leave or remain in the EU next year. The EU could, in effect, progressively leave Britain.


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