Eastern leaders to give Juncker cold shoulder over refugee crisis

Prime Ministers Ponta, Borissov, and Vu?i?. [Bulgarian government]

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called a mini-EU summit for today (25 October) with the leaders of the so-called “Balkan route” of Eastern European member states, in order to ask them to handle the migrant exodus in a dignified way.

But leaders from the region are prepared to tell Juncker that they won’t allow their countries to be transformed into refugee camps.

As migrants and bad weather cause chaos in the Balkans, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s push for a crisis meeting with regional leaders that Juncker will host today has raised concerns about a rift emerging between those emphasising humanitarian issues, and those stressing security, even if all agree both are important.

The leaders of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia will meet their counterparts from non-EU states Macedonia and Serbia. Turkey, the key country tasked with resolving the flow of migrants, is not invited, and neither is France, the EU founding member, Germany’s leadership equal in Europe.

>>Read: Juncker calls EU-Balkans mini-summit over refugee crisis

Divisions have emerged even between Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk, who normally calls EU summits. Clearly, Juncker is sticking to Merkel’s line that Europe is obligated to receive the asylum seekers, while Tusk says EU solidarity should not be equivalent to naïveté, and freedom should not be equivalent to chaos.

>>Read: Tusk and Orbán on collision course with Merkel over refugee crisis

More than 680,000 migrants and refugees have crossed to Europe by sea so far this year, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The current rate of arrivals of migrants to Greece is 10,000 per day. Most of the migrants says they want to settle in Germany, but fears are growing that even the largest EU economy won’t be able to handle the influx, and will someday soon close its borders.

According to its Schengen rules, EU countries can introduce temporary border controls, but for no longer than two months. Keeping border controls beyond this timeframe would abolish freedom of movement, one of the pillars of the European Union.

The Commission is reported to be panicking that the footage of migrants stranded in the Balkans will take over world news for many months, and project a dismal picture of the EU’s disintegration.

16-point plan

German media have reported that Juncker will present a 16-point plan, including an agreement not to send migrants from one country to another without prior consent. The meeting has been prepared by “sherpas”, meaning that the countries’ ambassadors have been involved in the drafting of the plan.

One of the items refers to sending more than 400 border guards within a week to help tackle the crisis is the Western Balkans.

Referring to the refugee exodus, First Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said that “what was unimaginable before now becomes imaginable: the disintegration of the European project”.

>>Read: Timmermans issues wake-up call to Europe

“Every day counts,” Juncker said on Sunday in an interview in German weekly Bild am Sonntag. “Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably.”

Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania said they would close their borders if Germany or other countries shut the door on refugees, warning they would not let the Balkan region become a “buffer zone” for stranded migrants.

The three countries who call themselves “the Craiova Three”, whith reference to the Romanian city which hosted a first meeting in that format, met in Sofia on Saturday.

‘We are not blind’

“If Germany, Austria and other countries close their borders, we will not let our peoples become a buffer zone. We will be ready in the same way to close our borders,” said Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov who hosted the meeting with his colleagues Victor Ponta of Romania and and Aleksandar Vu?i? of Serbia.

Borissov said that the Bulgarian and Romanian borders are guarded much better than those of Schegen states, or at least half of them. Bulgaria and Romania are not in Schengen, although the two countries met all the technical requirements years ago, but have not moved forward because of the opposition of Germany and the Netherlands.

“If you take a map of Europe you will see that Bulgaria, Romania Serbia and Greece will become the buffer zone between Turkey and the European Union. […] We are in favour of European solidarity, but we are not blind and if they would go to this experiment and leave the refugees with us, we will not agree,” Borissov said.

According to Borissov, what should be done is to move on with the agreement with Turkey, making sure that the millions of Syrian refugees remain on Turkish territory.

Borissov made reference to the Brussels mini-summit, and said he worried that the EU had no strategy, and had no idea how long the mass arrival of refugees would last, and how those people be would accommodated and taken care of. He said that “all” were very worried by the Afgahn refugees, who he said were “hard to integrate”.

“We are not allowed to expose our peoples to such pressure. I hope tomorrow we will have a common position,” Borissov said.

Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Ivailo Kalfin, who was in Brussels on Friday (23 October), and met with a small number of journalists, said the EU policy vis-à-vis the migrant crisis was mistaken, because it was stimulating the traffickers.

“Europe accepts those refugees, who have paid several thousands of dollars to traffickers”, he said, arguing that instead, there should be “hotspots” in countries neighbouring the conflict zones, such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, from where asylum-seekers should seek to be relocated to EU countries.

Kalfin said that many countries were complaining, because their neighbours were taking refugees in an organised way from one border, and were leading them to the next border.

Indeed, many reports confirm that Croatia is taking refugees by buses from the Serbian border, to the border with Slovenia.

Kalfin said that Bulgaria was one of the few countries that did its job according to EU rules.

“We don’t transport refugees from one border to the other. Asylum seekers are registered in Bulgaria, their fingerprints are taken,” he said.

Indeed, according to reports, migrants avoid Bulgaria precisely because of the high risk that they will be registered.

Bulgaria has a capacity to take in a few thousand of migrants, but the country’s entire capacity is far less than the daily influx of 10,000 migrants to Greece, he said.

The mini-summit is expected to last three hours, from 16:00 to 19:00 Brussels time, and will be followed by a dinner. Not all leaders though are expected to attend the dinner.

Borissov, in particular, is expected to leave early, as the country holds today local elections, and he plans to attend press events in Sofia following the announcement of the exit polls. 

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Eastern European countries owe it to their partners to do more to stem the inflow, and demanded a fairer distribution of asylum seekers among member states.

"Eastern Europe has done too little to resist the refugee stream," told public television on Saturday. "We have invested a huge amount in them, and now they are doing too little."

Rights group Amnesty International said the 28-country bloc could not afford to end another meeting without an agreed plan.

"As winter looms, the sight of thousands of refugees sleeping rough as they make their way through Europe represents a damning indictment of the European Union's failure to offer a coordinated response to the refugee crisis," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia. 

The Conservative ECR group has deplored that the summit is not held with all EU countries.

European Conservatives and Reformists Group home affairs spokesman Timothy Kirkhope MEP wrote to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, saying he was very concerned that decisions being made in this meeting could have significant impacts on other EU countries that will not be able to represent their interests at this meeting.

“By only inviting one 'destination' country – Germany – I fear that you will give many other EU countries - especially in northern and central Europe - the strong impression that decisions are being made by a handful of countries that will have lasting effects in all EU member states”, Kirkhope wrote.

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