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Is the European Union Up to the Task of Immigration?



With the heads of Europe preparing to meet next week, leaked documents reported by the Financial Times suggest that their response to the emergency posed by immigration from the Middle East and Africa will be inadequate. By ensuring that nothing effective will be done to address the crisis, they are likely to anger European voters and unsettle the political outlook in Europe.

The plan seems to amount to little more than promises to implement previous (and largely ignored) agreements concerning hotspots (e.g., temporary refugee camps in the frontier countries Italy and Greece), relocation (e.g., the plan to redistribute up to 160,000 refugees around the entire European Union and Schengen Area), and propping up failing external border control on the Schengen Area. These steps will not work, thereby aggravating the political tension in the European Union in 2016.

The hotspot idea is fundamentally a nonsense fantasy. It will never actually be implemented because of a lack of trust between Schengen members and the desire to pass an awkward political and financial problem (refugees) onto someone else. In principle, hotspot camps are to be established where the refugees arrive into the Schengen Area so that they can be identified and registered and begin their asylum application, before being relocated across the European Union as part of the 160,000 migrants previously agreed among EU members.

The problem is that almost none of the refugees wish to remain in Italy or Greece. They want to continue on to Germany, Sweden, or other EU members. Hence any such hotspots camps would become de facto prison camps, equipped and guarded to prevent newly arrived refugees from slipping out in the middle of the night to continue their journey north. Understandably the Greek and Italian governments are resisting payments to support such hotspots.

Moreover the European Union's relocation scheme covers only a fraction of the arrivals in Greece and Italy, which Frontex (Europe's current external border agency) estimates at 720,000 during January–October 2015.1 In other words, Greece and Italy would implicitly be expected to continue hosting 80 percent of the new arrivals.

This burden is untenable. In fact, only about 160 refugees—one-tenth of 1 percent of the 160,000 goal—have relocated in the European Union. No wonder Athens and Rome have resisted the construction of large hotspot camps. The rest of Europe, in criticizing the lack of hotspot camp construction in Greece and Italy, wants the vast majority of refugees to remain incarcerated in those countries.

The leaked draft Conclusion of the European Council meeting calls for Europe to "implement relocation decisions more rapidly as well as consider extending them to other Member States under high pressure." This passage implies that member states under high pressure (from large numbers of migrants)—such as Germany and Sweden—would consider relocating some of the many refugees in their countries. Such a stance is certain to inflame tempers across Europe, where many believe that lenient national asylum rules in Germany and Sweden have encouraged refugees to risk their trek to Europe in the first place.

The only potentially constructive item in the draft conclusion is the call to "ensure that Frontex and EASO [European Asylum Support Office] have the necessary expertise and equipment" and for the EU Council to "rapidly examine the Commission proposals of 15 December on a European Border and Coast Guard." This conclusion implies a realization that securing national borders must be a priority, or all other initiatives risk being drowned out by populist pressures. As discussed in my recent migration reform proposals , Europe needs a common comprehensive external border control organization as soon as possible. One can hope that the European Commission will propose a genuine one on December 15. The future of the Schengen Area, its mobility, and indeed the entire European project may well depend of the ambition of this proposal.

The risk is that instead the Commission will propose a beefed up version of the current and inadequate Frontex. EU members offered only 448 out of a requested 775 additional border guards to assist Frontex work in Greece in October, demonstrating that member states do not back up their heated rhetoric with concrete action. As discussed in my proposal for a European migration and mobility union , a completely new approach is required.

Half measures will not suffice. Simply renaming Frontex as the "European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG)" and tasking it on paper with assembling a standing force of up to 2,000 men is unlikely to produce the urgent results voters demand. The European Commission needs to be bolder and very specific about where the personnel and money is going to come from to pay for an EBCG. As discussed earlier, it is simply not feasible to fund a credible EBCG from the existing EU budget .

Giving Frontex/EBCG the stand-alone authority to decide when to intervene2 if a member state fails to manage its borders—as reportedly suggested by France and Germany—is similarly misguided. In reality an EBCG will never have the manpower, equipment, or institutional capacity to secure an external EU border, unless it does so de facto at the request of a member state. Any EBCG personnel would have to follow the national laws of the member state(s) in which it was deployed, ensuring that any national government could easily thwart its operations inside its territory.

Imagining the EBCG as some sort of invading army that swoops in to take over Europe's border control is a recipe for failure. What Europe needs is not a common army but a genuine common border control corps.

Unlike the euro area crisis, the current migration emergency is driven by external factors, such as demographics, war, and poverty in the regions bordering Europe. The hardball politics and threats that helped coerce member states into accepting domestic austerity in return for financial aid are inapplicable here. Syrian refugees do not care whether Greece is threatened with suspension from the Schengen Area for not living up to its commitments.

Recent calls by German Christian Democratic Union heavyweight Volker Kauder for a new common European border police force, accompanied by a complete or partial surrender of national sovereignty over these issues, appear to be steps in the right direction.

In the end, credible common European external border control and a genuinely effective EBCG will only be achieved through the voluntary and willing participation of member states, along with substantial new resources, ensuring that any new EBCG will be an adequately funded, comprehensive common border control and coast guard organization in Europe.

That is why a comprehensive European migration and mobility union is necessary now.


1. Concentrated in Greece with about 580,000 and 140,000 in Italy. See Frontex data.

2. Currently Frontex can only intervene if invited to do so by a member state. Trying to coerce a member state—as happened in early December 2015 with Greece—into inviting Frontex in against the threat of being suspended from the Schengen Area will surely not work. Frontex only has a realistic chance of doing its job if it can rely on the full cooperation of the member state in question.

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