The European Union’s mini summit was supposed to find a solution to the refugee crisis in the Western Balkans. Yet what emerged on Sunday looked like a series of piecemeal measures rather than a lasting solution.
The meeting in Brussels between 10 E.U. countries, including Germany, Austria and the Balkan E.U. states, as well as Serbia, Albania and Macedonia, was intended to tackle the ongoing crisis in the Balkans. Thousands of refugees are streaming through the region, after landing in Greece, most trying to make their way to richer countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden.
The leaders of nations along the Balkans route agreed to improve communications, provide shelter for another 100,000 asylum seekers and stop waving migrants through to other countries. But in a sign of ongoing deadlock, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was unable to curry support for her effort to create an E.U.-wide response to the crisis, or a plan to distribute the refugees throughout the 28-nation bloc.
Greece agreed to provide shelter for an additional 30,000 refugees before the end of the year, plus another 20,000 with help from international organizations. Another 50,000 refugees will be sheltered elsewhere along the Western Balkans route.
Furthermore, the E.U. will send 400 police officers to Slovenia this week to help stem the flow of refugees passing through the Balkans.
Political tensions have increased in the Balkans since Hungary sealed its southern border, redirecting the flow of refugees toward Croatia. Slovenia has accused Croatia of allowing those refugees to continue their journey northwards without communicating where they will likely cross the border. The neighbors have seen more than 10,000 new arrivals on some days.
Last week Slovenia, which has a population of just 2 million, mobilized its army to deal with the growing numbers arriving from Croatia.
“Croatia’s approach is unacceptable, irresponsible, and totally un-European,” said Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar.
“The situation is truly serious,” Mr. Cerar told reporters as he arrived at Sunday’s meeting. “If we don’t deliver some immediate and concrete actions on the ground in the next days and weeks, I believe the whole European Union and Europe as a whole will start to fall apart.”
Admitting that the measures are a far cry from a comprehensive solution, Ms. Merkel said that the agreement “doesn’t solve the overall problem. It’s just a contribution to what is a more reasonable way of dealing with the problem. Further steps will follow this, which will lead to a solution.”
“The only way to restore order is to slow down the migration flows,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said after the meeting. “We have made to clear to everyone this evening that waving [refugees] through has to be stopped.”
The United Nations Refugee Agency says that half a million people have arrived in Europe through the Greek islands so far this year. Greece has been unable to cope and has largely let people continue to the Balkans on their way to western Europe.
Those working with refugees in the region have been critical of the E.U.’s slow and uncoordinated response.
“As winter looms, the sight of thousands of refugees sleeping rough as they make their way through Europe represents a damning indictment of the European Union’s failure to offer a forward thinking and coordinated response to the refugee crisis,” John Dalhuisen, Europe director of Amnesty International, said ahead of the summit.
According to the summit’s final declaration, the additional border guards and better information sharing should help stabilize the chaotic situation in the Balkans.
The declaration also calls for accelerating the deportation of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries such as Pakistan who don’t have a legitimate claim to asylum. A repatriation treaty needs to be negotiated with Afghanistan as quickly as possible, officials said on the sidelines of the Brussels summit.
“Even with all the understandable unease, the base knows very well that nobody can guide Germany and Europe through this difficult time better than the chancellor.”
So-called “hotspots” or reception centers in Greece and other key border states will also play a more prominent role in trying to distinguish at an early stage between genuine refugees and economic migrants. Brussels will increase its support for these centers and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will also contribute its expertise. Refugees will be kept in the centers until a decision has been made about whether they will be resettled within the European Union or be deported.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the beginning of the Sunday summit in Brussels. Ms. Merkel emphasized that protecting the bloc’s external borders is “an important responsibility” that will help bring the situation under control.
After the meeting, which ended late on Sunday night, the chancellor said that “this is one of the biggest tests Europe has ever faced. We are confronted with global conflicts that touch us now directly, and in such a situation Europe must demonstrate that it is a continent of values and solidarity.”
The chancellor has been under growing pressure from her own Christian Democrats to shift course away from Germany’s open door policy and adopt a more restrictive policy toward refugees.
Germany has said it expects 800,000 asylum seekers this year, although some estimates say it could exceed 1 million.
“If the asylum policy isn’t changed then the existence of the CDU and the CSU is at risk,” Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the Christian Democrats’ Bavarian sister party, told a meeting of his party’s municipal politicians.
According to an Emnid opinion poll, the Christian Democrats have seen their support sink to 36 percent, the lowest level since the height of the euro zone debt crisis in 2012.
Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic critics are banking on the support of her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, the party’s other political heavyweight. While Mr. Schäuble hasn’t publicly criticized the chancellor, he reportedly expressed concern during a closed-door meeting of Christian Democratic leaders last week.
Der Spiegel newsmagazine reported that after the party’s general secretary, Peter Tauber, said during the meeting that the party base supports the chancellor’s refugee policy, Mr. Schäuble vehemently disagreed, describing the situation as “dramatic.” The finance minister reportedly said that if the new asylum laws didn’t soon show an affect, the party would face internal conflict.
Those close to Mr. Schäuble dismissed speculation that he’s been critical of the chancellor’s policy. They pointed to the finance minister’s public praise of Ms. Merkel’s recent trip to Turkey, where she offered greater support for Ankara in the refugee crisis. Handelsblatt’s sources said Mr. Schäuble agrees with Ms. Merkel that the flow of refugees must be slowed at the European Union’s external borders.
There has been speculation that if Mr. Schäuble were to come out against the chancellor’s policy, the party would rally behind him and oust Ms. Merkel, making him the new chancellor at age 73.
“He would never undertake anything against the chancellor,” Wolfgang Bosbach, the Christian Democrats interior policy expert, told Handelsblatt. While Mr. Bosbach agrees that the party base is increasingly critical of the asylum policy, he said that Ms. Merkel still enjoys a great deal of respect.
According to a Forsa poll published last week, 82 percent of Christian Democrats remain satisfied with the chancellor’s overall performance, while 18 percent are dissatisfied.
“Even with all the understandable unease,” Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister and a member of the CDU, told the Funke Media Group, “the base knows very well that nobody can guide Germany and Europe through this difficult time better than the chancellor.”
Thomas Ludwig is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels, Donata Riedel reports from Berlin. Siobhán Dowling, an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this article. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.