Are the wheels falling off the European bus? Operating outside the EU’s structures and in defiance of the supposedly comprehensive plan embraced by Brussels and Berlin, ministers from ten nations met in Vienna yesterday and voted to restrict migrant flows through the Balkans. The New York Times reports:
Among the measures was an agreement to grant entry to the 10 countries only to those “in proven need of protection,” which would essentially limit passage to Iraqis and Syrians and exclude Afghans and people from countries where the main problems are economic.
The ministers also agreed to set standards for what kind of information migrants would need to provide to be registered in their countries, to recognize formally that each state was responsible for protecting its borders, and to offer support to Macedonia, whose border with Greece has become the latest focal point for migrants trying to make their way to Germany and other prosperous Northern European nations.
This all sounds pretty reasonable—except that stopping the migrant flows by cutting off the route through the Balkans will leave one EU member-state out in the cold: Greece, which would then be on the hook for dealing with migrant influxes. So Athens—which didn’t receive an invitation—recalled its ambassador to Austria, a diplomatic move that is usually reserved for expressing real anger.
Meanwhile, President Viktor Orban of Hungary announced that his government would hold a national referendum on the EU’s refugee redistribution quotas. These quotas are supposedly mandatory under EU law, but increasingly the spirit of the day is “so how are you gonna make me?” The referendum question is reportedly going to be, “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the consent of parliament?”
These developments seem at first brush substantially to raise the stakes of the EU’s internal debate on migrant policy. The entire point of the European Union is to coordinate Continent-wide responses to problems that cannot be handled just at the state level, to avoid the kind of intra-European acrimony on display here, and to make sure everyone plays by the same set of rules. But it’s been clear for some time now that Brussels—and Berlin, as Germany is clearly the top dog in the EU right now—has not been up to the challenge posed by the migrant crisis. Worse, many member states see the threat that crisis poses as so existential as to be worth contradicting the rules of the club. What happens next will be vitally important for the EU’s long-term future.