Member states to clash over the EU’s new migration pact

The Capitals. [EPA-EFE/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU]

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For today’s edition of the Capitals, the EURACTIV Network reported on how EU member states reacted to the European Commission proposal for a New Migration and Asylum Pact.

The Commission proposed on Wednesday (23 September) that EU states share responsibility for asylum seekers under a “mandatory solidarity” mechanism.

With the new pact, it hopes to avert a replay of the 2015 migration crisis by giving countries a choice between taking in migrants or helping to send them back home.

The key point of the new pact is that member states would have to either accept asylum seekers, take charge of sending back those who are refused asylum, or offer financial assistance on the ground to frontline EU states.

This comes as a sweetener to member states that do not want to accept asylum seekers. But a problem surfacing is that there is yet no common EU list on safe countries of return – an issue that will make the proposed system even more complex to execute.

→ For the full story on the new migration proposal, also check out “EU’s new migration pact to to request ‘mandatory solidarity from member states”

Ever since the influx of over a million migrants and refugees in 2015, mainly via Italy and Greece, the EU’s 27 states have been divided over how to respond.

Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson immediately hinted that agreeing on the pact among the EU27 would not be plain sailing.

“My guess is that I will have zero member states saying it’s a perfect proposal,” said Johansson. “But I do hope that I’ll also have 27 member states saying it’s a balanced approach and let’s work on this… It’s about realising we have a common problem and we have to manage it together.”

EURACTIV’s media network looked into the reaction across the bloc.

The Proponents

The EU’s big two, Germany and France, quickly welcomed the Commission’s proposals.

Having taken in a million refugees in 2015 and struck a deal with Turkey to cut Mediterranean arrivals a year later, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the current host of the EU presidency, is the driving force behind the new migration pact.

However, across Germany’s political spectrum, reactions were rather mixed with regard to the new proposal. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) welcomed the pact, calling it “a good basis for further discussions,” but also encouraged other EU member states “not to take cover as a reflex,” and instead work towards a joint concept. While the centre-left parties claim it does not go far enough, Germany’s far right is hoping for a surge in polls.

Coinciding with the publication of the pact, France said it will take in 500 migrant minors from the fire-ravaged Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, 150 more than initially planned, the government said Wednesday (23 September). Paris also asked Italy to host the humanitarian ship.


The Pleaders

Southern European frontline states were rather pleased about the new EU migration policy attempt, but for many it was a step not far enough.

Migration is a divisive issue in Italy where arrivals have almost quadrupled since 2019. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called the new pact “an important step towards a truly European migration policy.

“The European Council needs to achieve a true balance of solidarity and responsibility. Assurance on relocation is needed: first arrival countries cannot manage migration flows alone in the name of the whole EU”, said Conte. Politicians and civil society organisations have welcomed the “positives”.

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Another frontline country, Greece, said it will insist on mandatory relocations. The Commission’s proposal is the basis for intense negotiations that will follow, Deputy Minister of Immigration and Asylum Giorgos Koumoutsakos said. “The Commission has tried to reconcile divergent views from different groups of countries,” he said.

However, it seems that Greece’s main push for mandatory relocations is not satisfied with this proposal. “We will actively and decisively support our fundamental positions […] these are the mandatory solidarity and fair sharing of the burden between all the member states, balancing the responsibility borne by the first line countries, including of course relocation.”

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For Spain, the proposal did not reflect the country’s main demand of a “mandatory solidarity mechanism” in Europe to alleviate the pressure and the heavy burden put on entry countries, and it imposes new border procedures that the Spanish government does not share.

After nine months of difficult negotiations, Madrid did not hold much hope of seeing its aspirations reflected in the new document as it is a minimum proposal that Spain will not reject outright, but neither will it applaud, government sources told El País. More analysis here.


The Opposers

A storm has been brewing as the Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – but also Austria and Slovenia have lately rejected the idea of mandatory relocation and some of them firmly opposed Southern Europe’s push for solidarity.

Even before the planned pact was laid out Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, had said it would not work.  However, Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer praised the Commission’s proposal and said he “welcomes the fact that there are now improvements in external border protection, returns and cooperation with third countries.” Austrian politicians are  particularly pleased that the proposal did not include mandatory resettlement.

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The Visegrad Four announced – following the initiative of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki – that they will meet with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday (24 September) morning. Slovakia’s PM will not participate, but will be represented by Poland as current chair of the V4.

Poland, had from the start rejected Southern Europe’s push for mandatory relocation of migrants. Additionally, the narrative of the government since 2015 was that many migrant workers from the East, especially Ukraine, come to Poland and Warsaw should not be burdened with helping the South.

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Hungary’s nationalist government said the EU’s external borders should “remain perfectly sealed along all sections”. Hungarian politicians insisted they will reject political blackmail.

Since Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has erected heavily guarded fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia, and refused to accept EU mandatory relocation quotas of refugees from elsewhere in the bloc. Budapest also built so-called border “transit zone” camps for asylum-seekers that were described as “unlawful detention” by Europe’s top court earlier this year. More detailed reactions here.

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Slovak foreign minister Ivan Korčok said that while Slovakia needs to study the proposal, the draft does not count for mandatory quotas. “The good point of departure is that relocation should be on the voluntary basis,” he said while acknowledging that every country should chip in for a common migration solution.

MEP Lucia Ďuriš Nicholsonová (ECR), European Parliament’s EMPL committee chair, reacted saying the proposal shows that the issue of a Europe-wide relocation of migrants is “anything but dead, as assumed by the leaders of the blocking minority, including Slovakia”.

The Czech Republic welcomed the plan, as it is not based on mandatory quotas, strengthens procedures at external borders and aims to make returns of illegal migrants more effective, Czech State Secretary of State for European Affairs Milena Hrdinkova tweeted.

“It is right that all participate in the system. But we must analyse the proposed mechanisms and their impact on the Czech Republic for the further negotiations,” said Hrdinkov. Czechs strongly oppose any mechanism based on mandatory relocations, as Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamacek (Social Democrats) repeated. It, however, seems they can live with the current proposal.

Slovenia supports the principle of voluntary solidarity while the new pact is based on the principle of mandatory solidarity, foreign ministry spokesman Aleksander Gerzina told the official STA agency, with his response making clear Ljubljana is rather unhappy with the proposal.

While the interior ministry declined to comment, Gerzina said the proposal still needs to be examined, but stressed that Slovenia had expected it to “take into account the concerns of some countries, including Slovenia, and include more balanced proposals”, which did not happen.

Southeastern European countries like Bulgaria, had no particular reactions, but Sofia, unlike Poland or Hungary, is not against relocation. During the recent Moria crisis, Bulgaria took in20 unaccompanied minors. Given that it is the EU’s poorest country, it is not attractive to migrants.

(Alexandra Brzozowski, EURACTIV.com | Anne Damiani, EURACTIV.fr | Alessandro Follis, EURACTIV.it | EUROEFE | Łukasz Gadzała, EURACTIV.pl | Zuzana Gabrižová, EURACTIV.sk | Georgi Gotev, EURACTIV.com | Sarah Lawton, EURACTIV.de | Vlagyiszlav Makszimov, EURACTIV.com) | Sarantis Michalopoulos, EURACTIV.com | Zoran Radosavljević | EURACTIV.com)



In other news from the Capitals:

BRUSSELS

Eased mask rules from 1 October. Belgium is ending a requirement to wear masks outdoors and reducing the time people have to self-isolate, in a slight easing of coronavirus restrictions announced on Wednesday (23 September) despite sharply rising numbers of COVID-19 infections. Masks will still have to worn in shops, cinemas, on public transport and in crowded streets. (Alexandra Brzozowski, EURACTIV.com)

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LONDON

New job subsidy scheme to be unveiled. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to unveil on Thursday (24 September) a new package of support measures for businesses and employees hit by COVID-19. Read more.

Read also: ‘Profound antagonism’ will follow ‘no deal’ on post-Brexit trade, thinktank warns

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HELSINKI

Nordic defence cooperation intensifies. The defence ministers of Finland, Sweden and Norway held a meeting on Wednesday (23 September) in the town of Lemmijoki in northern Norway to discuss “Nordic defence cooperation and matters related to regional security”. According to analysts, however, the meeting was more than meets the eye as it was significant for two reasons. Find out more here.


EUROPE’S SOUTH

MADRID

Spanish GDP shrunk less than forecast. Spain’s GDP shrunk 17.8% in the second quarter of the year, which is seven tenths less than previously forecast on 31 July, right after the end of the national “state of alarm” implemented by the government to contain the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s National Institute of Statistics (INE) reported on Wednesday. Read more.

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LISBON

Greater unity needed to overcome COVID-19 crisis. The response to the current crisis requires unity, said Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa yesterday, adding that the execution of European financial resources over the next few years requires minimal bureaucracy and maximum transparency. Read more.


VISEGRAD

PRAGUE

Abandoning the NATO target. The Czech Republic will not spend 2% of its GDP on defence by 2024 and will not fulfil its NATO pledge, Finance Minister Alena Schillerová and Defence Minister Lubomír Metnar announced on Wednesday. (Ondřej Plevák | EURACTIV.cz)


NEWS FROM THE BALKANS

ZAGREB

Croatia’s smaller GDP decline. Croatia’s central bank governor Boris Vujcic told a business panel that the country’s GDP could fall by around 8% this year – compared to an estimated 9.7% percent contraction the bank forecast in July. Speaking at a business panel, Vujcic said Croatia’s economy is expected to rebound by 6% next year, but warned it would not reach the pre-corona level before 2023. Read more.

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SOFIA

Bulgaria expels two Russian diplomats for spying. Two Russian diplomats were declared ‘personae non gratae’ yesterday and given 72 hours to leave the country, Bulgaria’s interior ministry announced. Although Bulgaria’s prosecution office decided to open a case against them with the charge of espionage as a crime against the state, the criminal proceedings were suspended because they have diplomatic status and immunity, the Prosecution office said. Read more.

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In other news, Bulgaria is seeing an increase in the number of school teachers and students having to quarantine due to COVID-19. Recently, more than 20 classes across the country have had to quarantine as the country recorded 4,608 active COVID-19 cases, of which 109 were announced yesterday (23 September). Meanwhile, the Council of Ministers decided to extend the current state of emergency so that it runs until the end of November.

(Krassen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg)

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BUCHAREST

Iohannis’s warnings. President Klaus Iohannis said Romania will lose part of the EU funds to which it is entitled and see its ratings cut if the pension increase adopted by parliament enters into force. A law adopted this week pushes for a 40% increase in pensions, despite the significant impact of the crisis on the country’s budget. Romania was running a high deficit even before the pandemic, with its budget gap above the EU maximum accepted level of 3% of GDP. (Bogdan Neagu, EURACTIV.ro)

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BELGRADE 

New regulations for foreigners working online. Laws related to the employment of foreign nationals will be amended so as to ensure more revenue is generated from an increasing number of foreigners who work remotely from Serbia but for companies located in other countries, announced Serbian Labour and Employment Minister Zoran Đorđević on Wednesday (23 September). Read more.

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In other news, Serbia’s epidemiological situation is one of the best in Europe as it is “holding up well” after the “significant” deterioration in July and August, said the WHO’s representative in Serbia, Marijan Ivanuša, on Wednesday (23 September).

When asked if he would recommend a state of emergency, Ivanuša said that the current situation in Serbia was good, and that he didn’t see why any additional measures should be introduced. “The situation needs to be monitored on a daily basis, and if it worsens, additional measures should be considered,” he added. (EURACTIV.rs  betabriefing.com)

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PODGORICA 

Montenegro inaugurates new parliament. Speaking at the inaugural session of Montenegro’s new parliament yesterday (23 September), Democratic Front MP Milan Knezević announced that his alliance had nominated Aleksa Bečić, leader of the coalition Peace is Our Nation, as the Montenegrin speaker, and Zdravko Krivokapić, the lead name on the list of candidates titled “For the Future of Montenegro” as the country’s prime minister-designate. Read more here.

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[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski, Daniel Eck, Sam Morgan]

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