Squaring the circle

EU mulls offshoring refugee centers but accord on immigration is elusive

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Not exactly a welcome mat. Source: Reuters

European Union countries are bracing for a tense summit on Thursday and Friday as an intractable immigration row has come to the top of a busy agenda. The bloc had planned to address subjects ranging from the trade war with the US to euro-zone reform. The EU also hoped to break the deadlock on Brexit talks.

But the summit in Brussels will focus on asylum instead, as recent developments have laid bare the deep divisions among the bloc on the highly contentious issue. Even the emerging consensus on establishing camps in North Africa to process refugees before they enter Europe is fraught with questions.

Much of the pressure comes from the political crisis in Germany as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative allies in Bavaria defy her insistence on finding a common EU policy for accepting and distributing refugees. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, has set a deadline of July 1 for her to get that policy before he implements a unilateral German plan that would in all likelihood topple the government in Berlin.

The disagreement between the chancellor and her interior minister centers on Mr. Seehofer’s proposal for migrants who have applied for asylum elsewhere in the EU to be turned away at the German border. While the hardline Bavarian politician argues this would reduce the number of refugees entering Germany, Ms. Merkel opposes unilateral action on principle, fearing this would cause the EU to unravel.

The leaders of Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance came away empty-handed from an emergency session Tuesday night seeking a resolution to the crisis. They will meet again on Sunday after the EU summit to assess what, if any, progress has been made.

But even after an informal “mini-summit” last weekend, the EU is nowhere near a common policy. Ms. Merkel has sought to cobble together a series of bilateral agreements. She tried to win over fellow national leaders with incentives from financial aid to Italy to agreement on a euro-zone budget, a project dear to French President Emmanuel Macron.

Merkel finds few takers

But despite Ms. Merkel’s efforts, Italy says there is nothing to discuss since the Dublin Regulation already requires Italy and other EU members to take back asylum seekers registered there on entry. The new populist government in Rome wants to keep refugees from entering Italy to begin with and that’s why it refused to allow the rescue ship Aquarius to dock with 630 migrants fished out of the sea earlier this month.

Greece, too, initially rejected Ms. Merkel’s proposed bilateral solutions. But on Wednesday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras signaled he was open to a special agreement with Berlin to take back refugees registered in Greece. He said it was “a European problem” and that the bloc had to find a way to “share the burden and to not have this unfair position for the frontline countries but also for Germany.”

Mr. Tsipras’ olive branch may comfort Ms. Merkel in her hour of need, but the EU still faces many hurdles if it is to come up with a common policy by the end of the week. It took the past six days for EU leaders to figure out where another ship carrying 230 refugees rescued at sea could dock and what would happen to those asylum seekers. If one boatload of refugees is that disruptive, it’s hard to see how leaders can come together on a common program for tens of thousands.

The most that leaders can hope for is some sort of vague agreement on refugee camps outside the EU and a framework for the bilateral accords preventing “secondary migration” — going on to another EU country after registering as a refugee at their point of entry. Efforts to strengthen border controls on the bloc’s outer borders will also gain support.

‘A Guantanamo Bay for refugees’

The notion of refugee camps within the EU is a nonstarter — not a single EU country wants to host such a facility. Mr. Macron has suggested setting up sealed-off camps on the European side of the Mediterranean. Refugees would be processed quickly. Those denied asylum would be sent back immediately to their homeland and those granted asylum would be distributed among EU members. He thinks Italy would be a good place for such camps but Rome has categorically rejected it.

Even the notion of offshore refugee camps runs into criticism. Eastern European members would like for the refugees to stay in these camps until they can return home, no matter how long it takes. Then there would be no need for asylum seekers to enter Europe at all. Austria declined to engage, saying it didn’t want to interfere in Germany’s domestic politics.

“I am against a Guantanamo Bay for refugees,” said Dimitris Avramopoulos, European commissioner for migration. Berlin kept the proposal at arm’s length, saying it’s not a “German idea.” Who would pay for the camps is an open question. The United Nations could help finance them, according to one suggestion.

It may be that Ms. Merkel will yet again pull a rabbit out of a hat and make enough progress to keep her domestic challengers at bay. But it is certain that immigration controversy will continue to plague the EU after this weekend’s summit.

As for the many other pressing topics — Donald Trump, Brexit or the euro zone — someone, somewhere, will eventually take care of them someday.

Several Handelsblatt reporters contributed to this report. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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