Leaders of the countries of the so-called “Balkan route” clashed on Sunday (25 October) with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with some of them using the argument that the Union may fall apart because of the refugee exodus.
If European leaders fail to agree on a plan to counter the sudden influx of asylum seekers, it could mean the end of the European Union, Slovenia’s Prime Minister Miro Cerar warned, as he arrived for an emergency meeting on the regional path which asylum seekers take from Greece, on their way to Germany.
“If we don’t find a solution today, if we don’t do everything we can today, then it is the end of the European Union as such,” Cerar said. “If we don’t deliver concrete action, I believe Europe will start falling apart,” he told the Brussels press.
The leaders of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia met their counterparts from non-EU states Macedonia, Serbia and Albania, added at the last moment. Turkey, the key country tasked with resolving the flow of migrants, was not invited, and neither was France, a founding member of the European Union.
It was clear from the beginning that the hastily convened mini-summit would be a clash between the executive, which advocates an open-door policy for asylum-seekers, and the Eastern European member states, which support shutting down Europe’s external borders.
The first to emerge from the summit around 8 PM was Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i?, whose body language clearly showed that the meeting was in deadlock.
“At least we had the chance to speak to each other, to hear each other and to learn a bit about the problems the others are facing. I’m not sure we will be able to conclude with something that will be helpful immediately,” Vu?i? said.
Asked by EurActiv if leaders had agreed on the 16-point plan presented by Juncker, Vu?i? said “not yet”.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov made an appearance before the press, following his Serbian colleague. Borissov said that all the leaders are very worried, because the problems the member states are facing are huge.
Borissov said he would refrain from commenting on details of the disagreements, but said that one issue he was absolutely against was the proposal by Juncker that EU countries should take loans from international financial institutions in order to deal with the migrant crisis.
He said he was strictly for the observation of the Maastricht criteria on financial discipline, and warned against the risk of turning the refugee crisis into a new financial crisis.
Borissov said he had asked, but received no answer, how many refugees the European Union is prepared to take – one million, two, five or ten.
“Juncker will come out soon. You should ask him,” he said.
Hours elapsed. The meeting scheduled to finish at 7 PM finished past midnight, many of the leaders having left in the meantime.
Finally, Juncker faced the press, alongside Merkel and the UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres.
Juncker said that the only way out of the situation was to slow down the uncontrolled flows of people.
“The policy of waving through people to neighbouring countries has to stop. I want to be clear: people must be registered. No registration, no rights,” Juncker said.
Merkel said that what was happening was not up to European values, and that it was urgent to find a humane solution for tens of thousands of people stuck behind closing Balkan borders as autumn turns cold and wet.
“Europe must show it is a continent of values, a continent of solidarity,” she said. “This is a building block … but we need to take many further steps.”
She also stressed the need to continue negotiations with Turkey, the main transit country to Europe, not only for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, but also large numbers of Afghans and Pakistanis viewed in the EU as unwanted economic migrants.
A final communiqué was made public including a Greek commitment to increase to 30,000 by the end of this year the number of places it has to host refugees – officials said it currently has some 7,000-10,000. A further 20,000 people should be sheltered in private accommodation in Greece, the statement said, while another 50,000 places should be available in countries further north.
Among other elements of the plan, EU member Slovenia will receive 400 extra police to handle an influx of migrants this month, following Hungary’s closure of its border with Croatia.
Guterres explained that the objective was not to force people going through the Balkans contry by country, border by border, until they reach the country which would provide them safety.
But in between, there would be a “situation of transition”.
“At least we must make sure that the movement is not chaotic, and that the conditions for people to be able move with dignity and not to risk their lives, and not to be entirely in the hands of the smuggling networks […], that can be at least impoved,” he said.
At the end, the objective is that those who need protection in Europe will not put themselves in the hands of smugglers, and that from the first point or relocation they should move by plane to the countries where they can have a new life.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he was satisfied with the outcome. In the frontline of the refugee wave this year, Greece has been criticised for failing to implement EU law on registering new arrivals. Officials said Tsipras had initially resisted calls for Greece to greatly expand accommodation for asylum-seekers and accept more border guards from other EU states.
Cerar, who before the meeting echoed other senior figures in warning that a failure to agree on handling the migration crisis could see the European Union itself unravel, called the deal “a step in the right direction”.
The only leader who apparently enjoyed the gathering is Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán. When he arrived, Orbán said he was attending in an observer capacity, because Hungary was no longer on the Western Balkans route. Indeed, after fences were erected in Hungary, refugees now avoid this country.