‘Mini summit’

Juncker’s bid to rescue Merkel

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Knight in shining armor (right) meets damsel in distress. Source: Reuters

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will reiterate his call to issue major new powers to the EU border agency Frontex at an informal immigration summit Sunday and will warn members that taking unilateral measures to curb refugee numbers will seriously damage the bloc, Handelsblatt has learned.

Mr. Juncker wants the European Union to increase Frontex staff from the current 1,500 to up to 10,000 by 2020. This is part of a reorganization that will turn Frontex into a “real EU border police force with its own powers to protect external borders,” according to a draft for the meeting’s communique obtained by Handelsblatt. At present Frontex can’t take action without getting prior approval from member states.

Mr. Juncker also wants the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) to be turned into a fully-fledged asylum agency with powers to check asylum applications at the EU’s external borders. The plan is that EASO, together with a beefed-up Frontex, will ensure faster deportation of people whose applications have been rejected.

Germany, Italy, Austria, France, Greece, Spain and other EU countries are due to take part in the working meeting to try and end a long-running deadlock on migration policy.

Merkel in dire straits

Mr. Juncker hastily arranged the meeting at the request of Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose political survival hinges on the bloc adopting tougher migration controls.

Ms. Merkel’s hardline Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union gave her an ultimatum. The CSU leader, Horst Seehofer, is none other than Ms. Merkel’s interior minister. He has mounted a direct challenge against her open-door policy by threatening to unilaterally start turning away asylum seekers at the German border unless she secures an EU deal by July 1.

The row, which boiled over in recent days after simmering for months, could lead to the break-up of Ms. Merkel’s three-way coalition just months after it was formed. Such an outcome would almost certainly spell the end of her almost 13-year tenure as Germany’s leader. It has already weakened her authority.

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Not quite on the same page. Source: Imago / IPON

Mr. Juncker helped Ms. Merkel out by calling the “mini summit,” which will take place just days before next week’s full EU summit. She was prepared to host the informal summit herself, but some of the invited leaders refused to come to Berlin.

So the EU Commission president was happy to oblige. “Unilateral, uncoordinated measures would not only be less effective, they would also do serious damage to the process of European integration and endanger the achievements of Schengen,” the draft communique says, referring to the Schengen Agreement to abolish border controls within an area that encompasses 22 EU nations and four other non-EU countries.

Half-baked

Mr. Juncker’s proposals include outsourcing the asylum process by creating regional centers, most of them located outside the EU, to accommodate migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. The details are unclear, though, and EU diplomats said the immediate priority must be to get EU states to agree to such centers in principle.

The EASO would set up new centers with the help of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, whose experts would sort out economic migrants from those who have a realistic prospect of asylum in Europe. The latter would subsequently be entitled to request asylum in an EU country while migrants with no hope of asylum would be offered financial incentives to return home.

Some experts have called the plan half-baked, however. Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative think tank and one of the architects of the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey, said a whole host of tough questions would have to be resolved to make it a serious proposal.

The EU first needs to strike deals with the countries where the centers are to be located. It must also decide who will be in charge of processing the asylum requests and what happens to asylum seekers once they’ve been accepted or rejected, he said.

Balkan route

He added that it would be far more effective to apply the Turkey deal more thoroughly. The 2016 agreement, which includes a payment by the EU of €6 billion ($6.95 billion) for projects to assist refugees in Turkey, has sharply reduced illegal migration across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece and from the so-called Balkan route to Germany.

“Most asylum-seekers still come to Germany via the Balkan route,” said Mr. Knaus. That was partly because Greece at present only deports 25 migrants a month to Turkey because their asylum cases are taking so long.

He said it was also crucial to agree to more repatriation deals with other countries where migrants come from — an issue no one in Germany was talking about in the current heated debate.

Till Hoppe is a Brussels correspondent for Handelsblatt. Frank Specht is a reporter in the Berlin bureau. Moritz Koch has been the Washington correspondent for Handelsblatt since 2013. To contact the authors: koch@handelsblatt.comhoppe@handelsblatt.com and specht@handelsblatt.com

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