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Bleak Outlook for Europe's Migration Crisis in 2016



Immigration replaced Greece as the topic for special meetings of the EU Council in September and November (twice, including with Turkey). The issue was also confronted by regular EU Council meetings in October and December. European justice and home affairs ministers replaced finance ministers in the media spotlight, and the European Commission presented a new reform package to deal with the migration crisis.

Yet in a phase reminiscent of the early euro crisis, this flurry of activity is not likely to solve a problem that could undermine mainstream politics in the region. Required far-reaching proposals, like my proposal for a European Mobility and Migration Union (MMU), outlined in early December, are not yet on the table.

The State of Play in the Migration Crisis Response at the End of 2015

The EU Council concluded on December 17 that "for the integrity of Schengen [the 26 countries that have agreed to lift passport requirements among them] to be safeguarded it is indispensable to regain control over the external borders." But no measures have been adopted to achieve this goal. As pointed out by the Luxembourg EU presidency, member states still do not contribute adequate personnel to the European border management institutions Frontex (the European agency for the management of operational cooperation at the external borders of the member states of the European Union) and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Italy1 and Greece2 remain largely on their own controlling what in the Schengen Area is a common European external border. The lack of adequate resources poses an obvious national security concern.

In late November the European Union secured Turkey's help to stem the flow of refugees into Greece in return for up to €3 billion in financial aid and other incentives. How this deal will be implemented is unclear, however. Migrant inflows through Turkey fell to 4,000 a day in December , from 5,000 to 6,000 a day in November), possibly because of the colder weather. As this figure from the European Commission illustrates , the effects on the ground of the agreement with Turkey have not been evident.

If Turkey does not curb migrant flows into the European Union, which seems unlikely, it will not receive its promised €3 billion. Top EU leaders must engage directly with Turkish president Recept Tayyip Erdogan to change the status quo.3

The EU response to the migration crisis has been to focus on hotspots, e.g. the supposedly temporary refugee camps in Italy and Greece. But covering only a fraction of the problem is no solution. The EU Council's agreement in November called for up to 160,000 refugees to be relocated among EU and Schengen member states. But almost 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in the EU-28 from January to November of this year. More than 400,000 were from war-torn Syria and Iraq alone.4 Frontex estimates that 880,000 refugees have arrived in Greece and Italy alone since January. Even worse, only 200 migrants have actually been relocated to other EU countries, and another 125 are planned before early next year.

Small wonder that Athens and Rome are reluctant to complete "hotspot" construction. As of early December, only one Italian and one Greek "hotspot" were fully operational. Northern European states are criticizing this slow pace, but clearly they prefer the refugees to remain in Greece and Italy.

In fact, however, few if any immigrants want to remain in Italy or Greece, where economic opportunities are dim. They want to continue onward to Germany, Sweden, or other EU members. As a result, the "hotspot" camps would need to be de facto prison camps, equipped and guarded to prevent escapes to the north.

The EU Commission's proposals for a new European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) are aspirationally correct. But budget constraints are certain to hamper implementation. The EBCG has proposed adding 1,500 border guards by 2020, capable of being deployed to a border emergency within three days. But this proposal lacks credibility. In any case, hundreds of Frontex/EASO positions are currently unfilled in Greece and Italy. Equally unrealistic is the proposed new right of intervention of the EBCG against the wishes of a member state. Without the consent of a member state, the EBCG will never have the manpower, equipment, or institutional capacity to secure an external EU border.

Europe lacks the financial commitment to carry out these tasks. External border controls are expensive. The US government spends $32 billion (or €30 billion) annually on such these tasks. By contrast, the EBCG—as proposed by the EU Commission —was allocated €239 million in 2016, rising to €270 million in 2017, and adding 602 positions by 2020.

The crisis is hardly likely to go away in 2016. The hardball confrontational tactics that led to a solution of the euro crisis are not applicable to the immigration crisis. Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe via Greece do not care if Greece is threatened with suspension from the Schengen Area by the other member states.

Inflows may decline this winter because of weather and remain stable through early next year. Accordingly, little political activity should be expected on this issue early in the year. EU leaders during the Dutch EU presidency will comfort themselves with the fact that at least things are not as bad as they were in the fall of 2015. Once the number of immigrants rises again, however, the public will demand more effective solutions. As discussed in my proposals for an MMU, such solutions will need to include partial surrender of national sovereignty over border control issues, establishment of an entirely new comprehensive common border control and coast guard organization in Europe, and agreement to pool substantial new fiscal resources.

Whether the synchronized French and German election cycles in 2017 will play a role is an open question. But the political window to do something will close by mid-2016. Hopefully, the prospect of undermining European integration will generate political will in Paris and Berlin. A far-reaching Franco-German summer initiative in 2016 to deal with the problem would be joined by at least the Mediterranean EU members and the Benelux countries. A surrender of relevant national sovereignty, combined with adequate national fiscal resources and the vision to establish a common European external border control organization, offers Europe the best option to solve the migration crisis next year.


1. The European Commission estimates that Italy needs about 60 additional Frontex officers .

2. The European Commission estimates that Greece needs about 600 additional Frontex officers .

3. The fact that Turkey was represented at the November summit by Prime Minister Davutoğlu instead was an ill omen. It was in a way reciprocated by the EU Council Conclusions, which rather than immediately committing the new resources to Turkey instead tasked the Committee of Permanent Representatives in the European Union (COREPER) "to rapidly conclude its work on how to mobilise the 3 billion euro for the Turkey Refugee Facility"—e.g. hardly a priority.

4. Latest UNHCR data available at [zip]

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