Europe Seeks New Refugee Deal

Refugeesbarbed wire DPA
Germany's plan to integrate Iraqi and Syrian refugees into the workforce is so bureaucratic, it would keep them out, not draw them in, the federal refugee agency chief told Handelsblatt in an exclusive interview.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The entire principle of the European Union is under threat from the refugee crisis. Ministers at the upcoming summit must find a solution soon.

  • Facts


    • 2,200 refugees continued to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece every day in January, down from 7,000 a day in October.
    • German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen wants NATO to target traffickers who bring people into Europe illegally.
    • A group of countries within the E.U. proposes accepting half a million refugees direct from Turkey, but only if Turkey secures its maritime borders.
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The European Union will declare next week that far too many migrants are arriving via Turkey and Greece and suggest that some countries take refugees directly from Turkish camps.

Handelsblatt has seen a draft of the final declaration for the summit that says the flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece is still “far too high.”

Ministers will discuss the possibility that a small group of E.U. countries will accept quotas of refugees taken directly from Turkey.

Germany is leading discussions on the refugee crisis, which is threatening to subsume Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing hard for a coordinated response. Her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, also said at a NATO meeting in Brussels Wednesday that the trans-Atlantic partnership should play a bigger role in dealing with human traffickers who are bringing so many of these migrants illegally into Europe, via perilous sea and land routes. She added that Germany is willing to take part in a NATO mission to secure the Aegean Sea.

But while politicians discuss policies, people continue to arrive in Europe, seeking shelter.

In January, an average of 2,200 refugees arrived in Greece every day across the Aegean Sea, the European Commission reported on Wednesday. That is sharply down on the peak numbers seen in October of last year, when 7,000 migrants a day were landing on the Greek islands, but the numbers were still far too high. Since January 1, a total of 340 people have drowned on the short sea passage.

The European Union wants to redistribute 160,000 refugees among its member states, to ease the burden on countries particularly hard hit. But so far, only 497 people have actually been moved.

According to E.U. diplomats, the heads of governments of countries hardest hit by the crisis will meet on the margins of the summit on February 18, the third meeting so far of the “coalition of the willing.” The countries are apparently prepared to accept refugees from Turkey, if Ankara will stop the flow of illegal migration by sea in return.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu is to attend the meeting, according to sources in Brussels. The meeting will be coordinated by Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. The “coalition of the willing” comprises Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and France. These countries will discuss the proposal to accept 250,000 refugees a year directly from Turkey.

A German government spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the “mini-summit,” but did confirm that a high-ranking working group, including the current Dutch E.U. presidency, would soon hold talks on a quota solution.

Stephan Mayer, the Christian Democratic parliamentary spokesperson on internal affairs, welcomed the latest plans, on condition that Turkey effectively polices its western coast and that all countries of the European Union participate in the quota system, even if on a voluntary basis. “Germany cannot again be left to bear the main burden,” Mr. Mayer told Handelsblatt.

However, the first reactions from the Turkish government cast doubt on the new plan. Selim Yenel, Turkey’s ambassador to the European Union, was blunt: “Forget it. It’s unacceptable. And it’s not feasible.” Ms. Merkel visited Ankara this week for her fifth round of negotiations with the Turkish government, but has little tangible progress for her trouble.

Within the European Union, there is little solidarity on offer. The European Union wants to redistribute 160,000 refugees among its member states, to ease the burden on countries particularly hard hit. But so far, only 497 people have actually been moved. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the E.U. Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, wrote yesterday to all 28 national governments of the Union, reminding them of their obligations and insisting they “move up a gear.”

The draft E.U. summit declaration contains a number of such reminders. “All Schengen members must fully apply Schengen rules,” it says, referring to the legal framework enabling free movement across internal E.U. borders. This would mean migrants with no right to entry should be turned back at the border. The draft declaration also notes that “much remains to be done” in preparing the so-called “hotspots,” large reception camps to be set up near the Union’s external borders in Italy and Greece. On Wednesday, Greece’s prime minister Alexis Tsipras insisted that the reception centers would be completed by next week.

“Our goal must be to obstruct – and if possible prevent – illegal migration and the criminal activities of human traffickers.”

Ursula von der Leyen, German Defence Minister

A stronger role for the NATO alliance has also been suggested to help stop the flow of seaborne migrants. This was agreed in principle by Ms. Merkel at this week’s meeting with the Turkish premier. It remains unclear what any NATO intervention would look like.

“Our goal must be to obstruct – and if possible prevent – illegal migration and the criminal activities of human traffickers,” said Ms. von der Leyen. According to foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition, NATO could above all deliver up-to-date information on the situation. A permanent NATO naval unit, with German participation, is already deployed to the Mediterranean.

European diplomats are not expecting any breakthrough in the crisis in the coming weeks. Key decisions are more likely to come at the organization’s main summit in March.

Meanwhile, the war of words between the German federal coalition partners has intensified following provocative comments by Horst Seehofer, premier of the state of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union. The CSU is the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats and a member of the federal coalition.

In inflammatory language usually applied to the Communist regime in East Germany, Mr. Seehofer said that Germany was experiencing the “rule of injustice.” Last week, he drew flak for holding talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Mr. Seehofer’s comments prompted sharp rebukes from the other coalition parties. The German media has even seen speculation on an unprecedented withdrawal of the CSU from the ruling coalition.

A government spokesman insisted that all was well: “The coalition is functioning very well on all levels,” he said yesterday.


Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt’s Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact the authors:,

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