Despite talks that ran late into the night, European leaders failed to come up with a lasting framework for resettling refugees based on quotas yesterday. EU leaders instead agreed to a one-time resettlement of up to 60,000 asylum seekers who landed in Italy and Greece across the bloc over the next two years—but with special opt-out clauses for the UK, Ireland, and Denmark, and certain exemptions for Bulgaria and Hungary. In proper European fashion, the decision on specific refugee allotment was deferred to an EU ministerial meeting scheduled for the end of July.
The exact terms of this “modest” deal are in some ways less telling than the story behind the meeting, however. As The Guardian reports:
A summit that also had to grapple with the Greek debt crisis and the British referendum on whether to stay in the EU was almost entirely consumed until 3am on Friday by the blazing row over a scheme criticised by humanitarian agencies as risibly inadequate for the scale of the problem.
Italy and Lithuania traded barbed insults, while two EU presidents – Donald Tusk, chairing the summit, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European commission – fought for hours over the wording of the summit statement, which could not be agreed.
The immigration crisis has already started to shake the Italian government; given Italian PM Matteo Renzi’s incomplete, vital reforms and Italy’s economic importance, that has Europe-wide implications. Even to get this level of attention from Brussels, Renzi had to threaten to open the floodgates by permitting all the migrants in Italy to head to other European destinations. And 60,000, while substantial as an absolute number, is small as a percentage the overall number of asylum-seekers now on Europe’s shores.
Meanwhile, Greece is still a destination of choice for refugees from Syria. Even though the country is in the midst of what by Western standards is a huge crisis, much of the Levant and as far afield as Afghanistan is far worse, and Greece is relatively easy to reach. Hungary is building immigration walls within Europe (if not within the EU), and the political discord exists not just at the ministerial level, but within almost every nation in the form of the populist parties.
And it appears one European leader, at least, seems to be grasping the magnitude of this:
Angela Merkel of Germany, which takes in far more asylum seekers than any other country, described the immigration crisis “as the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor”.
During those 10 years, Merkel has been the key figure in five years of eurozone crisis and is the lead European trying to deal with Russia’s military partition of Ukraine.
Now, we can make some allowance for hyperbole after a long, heated meeting; the euro crisis and the looming Russians are still very important, and in many ways more imminent threats to continental unity than the immigrant crisis. But Merkel’s remark does convey the seriousness with which this issue needs to be considered—it is a strategic, not simply a humanitarian, problem.
The chaos in Libya is a problem that Europe created (with substantial American help), that Europe has no intention of or plan to fix anytime soon, and that has become a gateway for much of Africa. Meanwhile, Europe still does not have the cultural resources to assimilate a large immigrant population successfully in many places, nor the legal architecture to allow it to deal with this crisis (either by distributing immigrants, turning them away, or both). It’s a serious problem that is not likely to abate anytime soon.
But Merkel’s candor—and the raw emotions on display last night—may be a good sign. As they say, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.