Conference report: Crossing boundaries in European asylum and refugee policy

Geflüchtete am Westbahnhof in Wien, 5. September 2015

Many experts are in agreement that the causes and long-term implications of the refugee issue can hardly be resolved at national level. Whether Brussels can play a more prominent role in future was the subject of debate at the annual European Conference held by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Berlin on 26 May 2016.

The discussion among experts soon uncovered that far-reaching common solutions, such as a coordinated refugee distribution scheme, are a forlorn hope given the political realities. Instead, many hoped for new European stimuli from a thus-far scarcely defined “Coalition of the Willing”, which could incorporate cooperative states, cities, civil society organizations and businesses. Imposing fines on unwilling states in connection with mandatory burden-sharing at a European level was largely rejected. Instead, suggestions were put forward for financial incentives to directly support those municipalities willing to take in refugees and also to convince the local population that refugees should cease to be seen as only a burden. It remained to be seen, however, whether these ideas – which have been well tested on a small scale – could also be implemented in the politically more challenging European environment.  

International diplomacy was identified as a woefully neglected EU instrument. Many conference participants called for Europe to go that extra mile to organize a more effective, international collaborative effort in order to manage the global refugee crisis. The pros and cons of the disputed Immigration Deal with Turkey were also the subject of contentious debate that evening. During the discussion, the majority doubted whether the Turkey Deal on the brink of failure should truly serve as a model of future diplomatic initiatives.

This was also the tenor expressed in the opening speech given by Roderick Parkes from the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris.

Refugee crisis or EU crisis?

That the refugee crisis represents a serious challenge for the European Union, which, in many ways, is acting as a catalyst for European protest, was a point of discussion that no-one in attendance at the conference doubted. Many experts were of the opinion, however, that this was a largely self-inflicted crisis, the scale of which could have been restricted had the European states been swift to respond. Rosa Balfour of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels put the case forward that it should not be called a “refugee crisis” but rather a “short circuit” which had paralyzed the EU’s political ability to act. The domestic fear of populist movements and election losses felt by individual governments had unforeseeably impacted collective decision-making in Brussels and led to uncoordinated, unilateral national action, she said. Balfour added that it was still unclear today, for example, why, in August 2015, European governments failed to implement the mechanisms that were already in place, i.e. the Council Directive on Minimum Standards for Giving Temporary Protection in the Event of a Mass Influx of Displaced Persons. She also noted that a decisive response would have put the crisis in a wholly different light, as the number of refugees, even at that time, did not pose an existential or systemic threat to the EU. Instead, chaos had broken out, with all the consequences that can be seen today, Balfour concluded.

Rosa Balfour’s analysis of the dimensions that the refugee crisis has taken on for the EU was shared by many conference participants. Monica Frassoni, Co-Chair of the European Green Party, reminded the conference that states such as Turkey or Lebanon had taken in far more Syrian refugees and that Europe’s problems were therefore not caused by Europe being excessively burdened but rather by its unwillingness to seek common political solutions. Rebecca Harms, Chair of the Green Party in the European Parliament, defended the EU’s institutions from harsh criticism, adding that the European Commission had recognized the problem long before the member states and had made the corresponding moves. The member states, on the other hand, had ignored the issue for a long time, or had shifted it to the immediately affected member states in the south of the EU. Even today, the EU’s ambitious proposals to remedy the problem were being hampered by the solo efforts of national governments, criticized Harms. She added that this was not only true of Central and Eastern European states such as Poland or Hungary.  France and the United Kingdom had also shown little willingness to work more closely together. That Germany was not a wholly innocent party either was voiced by Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, during his opening remarks to the conference.  Fücks stated that the German government’s decision to open its borders last year, whilst a welcome move from a humanitarian perspective, represented a unilateral act void of any EU policy coordination that had contributed to the present-day situation.

National perspectives dominate the picture

Exactly how differently the refugee crisis has been interpreted was underscored by the portrayals given by international guests attending the conference.  In his outline of Germany’s asylum and refugee policy, Steffen Angenendt from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, explained that the Federal government had opted to take in a generous number of refugees not just for humanitarian reasons but also because of the country’s solid economic and budgetary situation. In principle, Angenendt added, none of these policy objectives had changed; the German government continues to reject any maximum limits for taking in refugees and wants to keep Europe’s internal borders open.  By contrast, political realities in Sweden have forced the Social Democratic/Green government to undertake an abrupt U-turn in its generous asylum policy, reported Pernilla Bäckman from the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies in Stockholm. She noted that, in terms of its population, the country had taken in more refugees than any other European country, which had sparked concerns as to the future of the Swedish social welfare state and fears of socio-cultural integration problems. Bäckman went on to state that many Swedes were disappointed at the reticence of other EU states to share the burden, preferring instead to criticize Sweden as being a “magnet” (or “pull factor") for new refugees in Europe.

Among the countries decisively rejecting any form of asylum and refugee policy along the lines of Sweden’s model is Poland. The Polish government opposes any Europeanization of the crisis and pursues a “policy of non-action” as far as refugee distribution is concerned, said Piotr Buras, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Office in Warsaw. Instead, the government is seeking to combat the push factors and shore up Europe’s external borders, he said, adding that Poland had dispatched border guards to Macedonia and Hungary thus signalling its willingness to provide greater humanitarian aid to refugees on the ground. This policy was also one that had been pursued by the current conservative government’s liberal predecessors and one that met with widespread approval among the nation’s population, Buras concluded.

The refugee crisis has a global dimension

The final discussion during the conference focused on the non-European perspective of the refugee crisis, which is often neglected in the European debate. Katharina Lumpp, UNHCR representative for Germany, explained that this was ultimately a global crisis that was by no means shouldered primarily by rich Western nations. Today, 80 percent of all international refugees live in developing countries, she said, adding that Lebanon – with a population of 4.5 million – had taken in over one million Syrian refugees. According to Kathleen Newland from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC, the US intends to allow 75,000 selected and carefully screened refugees to relocate to the US. On an international scale, this would represent the largest single state relocation programme, Newland stated, adding, however, that, given the scale of the crisis and in light of a restrictive asylum policy, it was no more than a “drop in the ocean”. Financial aid is of greater importance, Newland stated: for the Syrian crisis, the US Administration had allocated some 4 billion US dollars for refugee aid. Around one quarter of the entire budget put forward by international institutions such as the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross was also financed by the United States, she added.

In his closing remarks, Aboubakr Jamai from IAU College in Aix-en-Provence, France, reported on the situation in his home country. Morocco was not only taking in numerous migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa but was also one of the key countries of origin given its significant economic and demographic problems. He added that the government supported this migration in particular due to the high level of youth unemployment. Many Moroccans were dependent on remittances from Europe, he stated. According to one study, Morocco’s GDP would slump by 7% without this financial aid and one million Moroccans would plummet into absolute poverty, said Jamai.

Only second-best solutions currently discernible

What shape an asylum and refugee policy might take if it not only catered to divergent European interests but also to the complex international framework conditions? Nobody expects a return to a policy of open borders and the same “open-door culture” that was in effect in Germany, Austria and Sweden in September 2015. Instead, the general consensus among critics was that Europe is pursuing a purely closed-border policy that puts national interests first and is effectively annulling the Geneva Refugee Convention. Many experts shared the belief that Europe’s external borders would continue to be monitored in an organized fashion based on security policy aspects.

Many conference delegates were in agreement that a more exigent strategy would be to find realistic common ground that ceased to perceive migration as a threat and instead effectively controlled and regulated the influx of refugees to Europe. They also stated that legal migration channels to Europe needed to be found in order to lower the levels of irregular migration. Instead of leaving especially affected countries such as Greece in the lurch with the problem, the EU member states must share the burden. But the experts were in agreement that, given the political mood in Europe, conceptually inter-related EU policy could scarcely be implemented today. Piotr Buras left no doubt, for example, that Poland would categorically reject any relocation of refugees within Europe and to Europe, as had already been agreed and/or proposed by the EU Commission.  A “Coalition of the Willing” that not only included cooperative states, but also individual cities, businesses and civil society organizations, was repeatedly brought up as an alternative. According to Monica Frassoni, Barcelona and Paris, for example, had declared their willingness – in contravention of their own governments – to take in more refugees. However, this seemingly natural circumvention of the national regulations was viewed somewhat sceptically by some participants on legal, political and practical grounds. A “Coalition of the Willing” would not be effective without state coordination, it was argued. 

As to suggestions for sharing the financial burden, the idea of making unwilling EU member states pay penalties was rejected by many participants. Potentially effective incentives were outlined instead that sought to cause the states and, above all, the municipalities to freely take in refugees. Piotr Buras and Steffen Angenendt proposed, for example, that cities and communities should be financially compensated for taking in refugees.  Moreover, such compensation should not only cover the per capita costs of the refugees but should also allow for additional investments to be made in the local infrastructure. It was felt that local populations might – especially in structurally weak regions - then gain the impression that they were directly benefiting from an active refugee policy.

The EU-Turkey Deal – a new refugee diplomacy model?

Whether these ideas can be implemented as EU policy is ultimately open for discussion, according to the participants. Given the “depressing situation” in Brussels, Rebecca Harms recommended focusing on humanitarian aid for refugees on the ground as well as working more closely with receiving countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Many experts were of the opinion that the EU should centre far more strongly on instruments of diplomacy in order to organize international engagement and encourage other countries, e.g. the Gulf States, to pursue a more generous asylum policy and to implement more comprehensive relocation programmes.

This approach is currently restricted to the controversial deal with Turkey that was also contentiously discussed during the conference. Many guests criticized the rule of law deficits and the humanitarian impact of the Deal. Political shortcomings were also emphasized. Rosa Balfour felt reminded of Europe’s refugee pact with Gaddhafi in 2010, which factually allowed the Libyan dictator to blackmail the EU. She added that there was a danger of this repeating itself and that, in the process, Europe had merely given itself a breather without having come closer to sustainable solutions. This sobering analysis led Balfour to suggest that, on the refugee issue, the EU would be better advised to forgo  any collaboration with authoritarian governments.

Such a categorical rejection of the Deal was not shared by all experts, however. Ralf Fücks, for example, did not want to unconditionally rule out all dialogue and collaboration with authoritarian regimes even though he found the content of the EU-Turkey Deal to be unsatisfactory. To his mind, the agreed relocation programme for refugees from Turkey to Europe is insufficient as a means of reducing the incentive to open up new illegal and dangerous routes to Europe. According to Roderick Parkes, such a shift of refugee routes is not perceptible as yet, however. Parkes agreed with other experts that the Deal was successful in that it had markedly lowered the number of refugees coming into Europe, adding that the Deal benefited both sides.  Furthermore, that it was supported by all EU states should not be underestimated given the previously discussed issues.  As a final remark Steffen Angenendt reminded the conference’ participants of the potential consequences of the likely failure of the Deal: Greece would come under considerable pressure given the renewed rapidly rising refugee figures and would need far greater assistance from the other EU states than had been the case to date.

All in all, the discussions that ensued at the conference reflected the current political climate: a myriad of national perspectives that are difficult to harmonize. And, yet, there were a number of approaches that are worth pursuing collectively – in the sense of a humanitarian solution for those who are forced to flee from war and violence.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".

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