More than any other challenge facing Europe today, the ongoing migration crisis has the potential to destroy the European project. Rather than debating European Commission diktats and lamenting member states’ rebelliousness, EU leaders must consider fresh approaches, including third-country disembarkation platforms.
MADRID – The European Union loves giving itself ultimatums, whether it is the two-year deadline for Brexit negotiations or European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s declaration, upon taking office, that his was a “last-chance commission.” Unfortunately, European leaders rarely follow through on their best-laid plans. When it comes to migration, however, they may not have a choice.
The issue has become a sword of Damocles hanging over the EU. It straddles every fault line: between country and community, between security and openness, between national and European identity, between social values and economic or strategic interests. As a result, migration, more than any of the other myriad challenges the EU confronts today, has the potential to destroy the European project.
Of course, the EU has often proved that, when push comes to shove, inertia prevails. But, given the urgency of today’s migration crisis, not even the EU will be able to muddle through. If it tries, the issue will only fester, eating away at the Union’s very foundations. For once, Europe’s leaders have no choice but to put up or shut up.
Make no mistake: Europe’s migration problem is not going away. The decline in asylum applications in 2017 was not, as many believed, an indication that the problem was being overcome. On the contrary, while the migration challenge became apparent to many Europeans only in 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the door to a million desperate asylum seekers, the issue has long plagued southern Europe and is now mutating in dangerous ways.
That change is exemplified by the recent saga of the MS Aquarius. Operated by a Franco-German charity, the Aquarius rescued 630 migrants and refugees off the coast of Libya. On June 9, Italy’s new interior minister and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, rejected the ship’s request to dock in his country and prohibited them from even entering Italian waters. Then Malta, too, turned the refugees away. Finally, after nearly a week, Spain stepped up, allowing the ships to dock in the port of Valencia.
Irregular migrants arrive in Europe every day: as the Aquarius was arriving in Valencia, more than a thousand people were saved just a couple of hundred miles to the south, while trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. But a high-profile drama like that of the Aquarius creates political incentives for hardline positions. It is political candy for populists and poison for rational policymaking.
And, indeed, the recriminations that followed Salvini’s move have been unprecedentedly divisive. French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy’s populist government of “cynicism and irresponsibility.” In Germany, the survival of Merkel’s governing coalition is now in jeopardy, owing to a standoff over migration between her Christian Democratic Union and the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, led by Horst Seehofer, the interior minister.
There will be more ships like the Aquarius, and Europe cannot afford to confront such a drama every time one appears. The gap between the EU’s rhetoric of solidarity and shared values and its real-world behavior must be closed. Unfortunately, that outcome is far from guaranteed.
So far, the EU’s response to migration has depended on top-down measures and mandates. Such an approach, taken early enough in the crisis (say, in 2013 or 2014) might have been sufficient to guide a common European approach. But excessive foot-dragging and uncertainty – owing not least to German unilateralism – impeded EU-level action, as it enabled migration to become a hot-button issue in domestic politics.
What now? The European Council’s June meeting will focus on migration, but there has been little reason to hope that it will bring meaningful progress. The EU is nowhere near a policy consensus – the political climate does not allow for it.
Rather than debating European Commission diktats and lamenting member states’ rebelliousness, what is really needed is a total reset by EU leaders. Progress has been made on many fronts, including burden-sharing in settling refugees, reforming and strengthening Europe’s border protections and coast guard, concluding agreements with other countries to return migrants, and providing development and governance assistance to address the push factors driving migration. But it is not enough.
There is one more possible solution: the establishment of migrant processing and resettlement centers – “disembarkation platforms” – outside of EU territory. It is a fraught proposal, as it resembles Australia’s problematic approach to immigration, whereby migrants are held – out of sight and largely out of mind, often for years – on nearby Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
But the European Council is now considering just such disembarkation platforms, as well it should be. Europe should not emulate Australia, but the establishment of these types of platforms – with real processing and relocation – in third countries could offer major benefits, not least preventing further dramas like the Aquarius episode.
Disembarkation platforms would enable controlled assessment of which migrants are owed legal protection by the EU, prior to their resettlement in the Union. If migrants know they will not be able to set foot on European soil without first proving that they qualify for asylum, those who do not qualify are less likely to fall victim to smugglers’ claims that they should brave the dangerous journey.
If the EU is to survive the migration crisis, it must work together. Disembarkation platforms in third countries raise legal, ethical, and financial challenges. But they can be overcome. The EU’s future may depend on it.
Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State, a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University, and a member o