As days stretch long across Europe and spring gives way to the warmth and brilliance of summer, European nations on the Mediterranean basin prepare to host new guests. The seasonal shift not only draws bustling groups of tourists, but also scores of economic migrants and refugees seeking safe passage to Europe, traveling by way of the Western, Central and Eastern Mediterranean roots and increasingly, the land corridors.
Since January, leadership in the bloc has been looking to pre-empt and prepare for the impending seasonal migration surge. Just days before the upcoming main European Council Summit on June 28-29 – a crucial meeting when consensus on this ever-growing issue is set to be reached – the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, called an emergency mini-summit in a bid to bridge deep divisions between EU members states.
Juncker sat down with representatives from 16 of the 28 member states in an effort to search out common ground before the eleventh hour. Despite seemingly steep hurdles, there was accord on several proposed solutions. While no official documents were signed nor any agreements finalised, Spanish President Pedro Sanchez described the brainstorming session as “positive” and “hopeful” when it came to narrowing in on a one-size-fits-all solution. “We have found more points of union than of discrepancy, there is still a lot to do but an important step forward has been taken.”
In fact, Sunday’s meeting resulted in the majority of the EU leaders stating that the group had been able to re-shift its focus from redistribution of asylum seekers across the union, to increased focus on cooperation with the countries of migrants’ origin.
This is increasingly becoming the main point of agreement between nations, and is a tact that many frontline countries, including Italy, Greece and Spain, have been advocating for since the initial onset of migrants poured onto their shores three years ago. Italy’s new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was both present at Sunday’s talks and outlined a ten-point plan on how to change the status quo of the migrant arrival and asylum seeking process for the better of those seeking refuge and those providing it.
The very nuts and bolts that frontline countries are battling to change is exactly what leaders will be tackling on Thursday, as the crux of the debate will focus on efforts to revise the Dublin Regulation, the current EU law that defines an asylum seeker’s country of first arrival as responsible for both processing the claim and providing asylum. Dublin proved both insufficient and problematic for the scale of the on-going forced migration crisis, and ultimately put overwhelming burden on Mediterranean states – the first landing ground for people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.
These bitter debates over a common asylum system within the bloc aren’t new. Heated rhetoric has wavered between a low simmer and boiling since the very onset of the European crisis in 2015, when EU governments were first overwhelmed and underprepared for the one million people flooding its borders. However, EU Migration Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos has not given up, expressing hope that more resistant countries such as Hungary and Poland will sign onto a proposal before the week’s end. Avramopoulos aims to “convince the last remaining [member states] to join” in a common solution, deeming it “the only pragmatic answer to a real problem we are confronted with.”
No Eastern European countries, save Bulgaria – which holds the EU’s half-yearly presidency role – were present at Sunday’s talks.
Throughout the last 18 months, several member states have called for stricter border controls and have supported increasing funding and resources to Frontex – even calling to expand Frontex’s operations into North Africa and the Middle East. While the European border control and coastguard agency is set to have its budget tripled and personnel drastically increased in the next decade, critics remark that such changes are occurring too slowly and that, regardless, enhanced border control is not a durable solution. Refugees and migrants will continue to seek and successfully gain entry into Europe – potentially via riskier routes. Thus, partnering with countries of origin and investing in development schemes will be critical for stemming migration flows long term.
Indeed this idea gained purchase during Sunday’s meetings, with several members in agreement to focus more on the “external dimension” of mitigating asylum overflows, by increasing funding to neighbouring countries and organisations like The Africa Fund to improve the situation on the ground. Representatives also discussed the idea of pre-screening Europe-bound asylum-seekers in North Africa, while others advocated for the creation of processing centres in European territory. Regardless of location, those who contributed to Sunday’s talks were eager to put the focus on investing in improving the conditions from where refugees hail, in order to alleviate some of the core issues that are exacerbating the migration flow. Following his attendance at Sunday’s meeting, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat remarked “it has gone better than expected, there has been progress, I hope it has served to put us in a position to understand each other better next week.” However, he also warned “if we do not make decisions in the coming days, the situation will continue to escalate.”
Tomorrow, leaders and heads of state from across the bloc will assemble in Brussels to pursue what may prove to be the most difficult challenge in the realm of multinational migratory reform: consensus.