Ahead of the European Summit tomorrow (18 February), EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger told EurActiv’s partner Tagesspiegel that a lower number of refugees than last year has to be the target.
Günther Oettinger is the EU’s Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. He was Chairman of the Christian Democratic Union in Baden-Württemberg between 2005 and 2009.
Oettinger spoke with Tagesspiegel’s Albrecht Meier.
Is this Angela Merkel’s last chance to find a European solution to the refugee question?
The summit is important, but we have not yet reached an all-or-nothing scenario. Dealing with the refugee crisis is a process that began last summer and which has in the meantime yielded results. We need further progress from the summit. But it will not be the last chance to consult each other at a European level. The aim to implement measures that have already been agreed upon and to hash out new proposals that have been put together by the Commission.
The speed at which European refugee policy is implemented has to be higher. The propsal for a European border protection agency was discussed at the EU summit last December, but was adjourned until next June.
Any decision at that point is going to be very late though. Basic decisions on border protection should be tackled at this summit or, at latest, in March. Otherwise, the existing problems that are being experienced by countries such as Greece are only going to get worse by the time June rolls around.
How does Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras fit into this? Will he finally be forced to give up some of his country’s sovereignty?
Obviously, border security also falls within national competences. But if the task of securing the EU’s external borders, hundreds of islands included, is proving to be too difficult, then it makes sense to accept help from the European family. Marine units from other member states could support the Greek authorities in coastal protection.
There is also another reason why it is in Greece’s best interests to integrate itself within the European strategy rather than dealing with its problems alone: the Visegrad Four, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, are calling for Greece’s northern border to be sealed off. This is, significantly, not a threat that the Commission is forwarding.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is largely responsible for the V4’s policy direction. Has he sabotaged what Angela Merkel wanted to achieve in terms of border control in Greece?
Viktor Orbán is going down another path. At first, he cut Hungary off. Now he’s pursuing a solution without Greece and other players. But sealing off the Greek-Macedonian border is just going to make refugees look for another way. In the spring, more people will once again cross the Mediterranean on their way to Italy.
The effects Orbán’s strategy will have on Greece should not be overlooked either. It is going to cause a backlog, which, among other things, is going to have a knock-on effect on tourism. That is why we need a solution that is supported by all 28 member states.
Should there be financial sanctions against countries like Hungary that don’t engage with common refugee policy?
Such a measure would have to encompass several countries. I can’t think of many countries that have done more than Germany, Sweden and Austria. So I would not go down the sanctions route. The distribution of 160,000 refugees, agreed at EU level, has to be implemented. Of course, the different sensibilities of different member states have to be taken into account. One cannot impose German policy on the rest of Europe.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has commented that France will not take in any more refugees than the 30,000 it has agreed upon. Is this a case of national selfishness?
Valls is at least aware of the obligations his country has committed itself to in terms of accepting refugees. In this way, France is more constructive than some other member states. One must also give credit where credit is due to Valls, after the National Front tried to exploit the sensitivities surrounding the refugee crisis in the lead up to the presidential elections. But I am sure that the French will undoubtedly show more flexibility on this issue.
What should Merkel do if numbers rise again in the spring?
Well, we are going to see higher numbers again in the spring, because the weather will improve. It is more a question of how to keep the numbers below what we saw last year.
That has to be the goal, because the Commission and the German government have taken some important steps in the meantime. Like I said before, it’s a matter of speeding up implementation.
The second issue on the table at the summit will be the issue of the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Is this the wrong impression, but is the Commission willing to pay any price to keep the UK in the bloc?
Following the debate in the UK itself, it is clear that there is a perception that Mr Cameron has not negotiated enough. I believe that the offer on the table is moderate, because it does not involve a Treaty change. The European institutions are not going to be weakened by the proposals. There is balance is what has been sketched out.
The danger is that other EU member states will see this as a precedent to negotiate their own special rights, surely?
That scenario has always existed. Just think of Denmark, which managed to keep itself out of the eurozone. Or, think about Germany and how it limited the free movement of workers after the big enlargement. When budgets are being negotiated, each member state looks after its own interests, whether it be agriculture or research. I don’t think that the UK scenario is anything new.
But isn’t the real danger that regardless of all this, the referendum will still result in a “no” vote?
The referendum has not yet been decided. Even with the offer on the table, it is up to the British people to vote on the issue. We accept that. Therefore, active participation in the campaign on the part of the Commission or other European institutions is not advisable. I’m counting on the fact that a majority of British companies and trade unions will recognise that Britain stands to lose a great deal if it leaves the EU.
There was a certain amount of excitement caused by a statement you made at a Microsoft event in Berlin about the leader of the Alternative for Germany party (AFD), Frauke Petry. You said “if crazy Petry were my wife, I would shoot myself tonight”. In American politics, that would surely be classed as a character assassination. Do you stand by what you said?
Ms Petry made comments regarding using deadly force against refugees to secure the borders. I believe this is inhumane and that the woman is a disgrace to German politics – something I also said.
This article was also published by EurActiv Germany.