There have been two important meetings this week in Brussels. On Tuesday 22nd, the Justice and Home Affairs Ministers of the EU plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland adopted a decision to relocate 120,000 people from Greece and Italy over a period of about two years. The states joining in this scheme will receive 6,000 euro for each relocated person. The ministers invoked the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between Member States and despite squawking from the usual suspects, the decision was agreed on by a very large majority. Poland opted in with the majority abandoning her Visegrad fellows. Hungary has opted out of the scheme, the whole purpose of which is to lighten the load of the countries which have been overwhelmed by asylum seekers. There are about 50,000 asylum seekers on Hungarian soil at this moment and the Hungarian government are building walls and bringing in the army to stop any more from entering. Before the meeting ministers were each in turn greeted by the press of their countries and it was the moment for a short slogan filled audiovisual opportunity. Swiss President Simonetta Somarruga hit the nail on the head by saying that only a coordinated approach would do – a patchwork of national solutions was no longer on the table.
The 120,000 registered asylum seekers will be allocated to various countries on the basis of the agreed proportional quota system. Not discussed was a standard procedure and time period necessary for processing asylum applications. This varies very widely from state to state and is an opportunity for corruption. There is also the issue of choice. German Foreign Minister Thomas de Maiziere has said that refugees may not choose where in Europe they will settle but in practice it is difficult to imagine asylum seekers being forcibly transported to countries where they don’t want to go. Only after a period of five years will they have the right to settle in countries outside the one which has granted asylum. Priority will be given to Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans, especially to more vulnerable people.
The second important meeting was the informal summit of European leaders and Heads of State held on the 24th which went on until after one o’clock in the morning. At the press conference Donald Tusk, President of the European Council announced a list of measures which had been adopted and Commission President Junkers added that the atmosphere had been better than expected. “Hotspots” – that is to say centres for registering and fingerprinting will be established at the borders of the Union to ensure efficient classification of the status of those entering and their subsequent relocation or return – at the latest by November. The utter inefficiency of the Hungarian government to provide decent facilities where people entering could wait was one of the reasons for tensions flaring and for Angela Merkel unilaterally citing emergency provisions to enable Germany to register and process the people who had entered the EU in Hungary. According to the Dublin III regulation it is the state of entry that should do this. Rather than decent receptions centres Viktor Orban’s government has preferred to spend EU resources on fences and avoid allocating funds to any measures which might have made the asylum seekers feel welcome. We have all seen the pictures. I was dismayed to hear more racist ranting on a radio station this morning as Slovak citizens expressed disgust at all these horrible migrants coming through their country “because they want better life”. Is it extraordinary to dare for a better life, especially when your last year has been spend in an unsanitary camp in Jordan with few prospects? The fact that some refugees have not come directly from Syria but from these camps has some people up in arms with indignation as they are saying that they are just economic refugees and shouldn’t be allowed in. I have talked to members of the extreme right in Hungary and asked them if they don’t think this is a hypocritical stance as there are so many Hungarians who have moved to the richer parts of the EU because they just want more stuff but the answer is invariably that they have to go because the government is not capable of assuring them a livelihood. Another assertion popular on right wing blogs and in the press is that asylum seekers from war zones are cowards who should stay behind and fight to get their country back from ISIS. At the same time disgruntled Hungarians seem to thing it’s OK to abandon their country and leave it up to the governmnent to sort out its economic problems – surely a much less daunting prospect than being caught between ISIS and Assad’s forces no matter how much of a mess the economy is in. So sad that now that the former Soviet Block countries have been safely welcomed into the European fold – a place of aspiration for decades during the cold war, they don’t want anyone else coming in. And certainly not if they are the wrong colour or creed.
I’ve never been a great fan of Vladimir Putin but he got it right yesterday when speaking at the inauguration of the renewed Grand Mosque in the Russian capital. In a country where extremist haters are not shy, his speech sent a strong signal about the country’s Muslims being an integral part of society in Russia. I had had the impression that the farther east you travel in Europe, the more islamophobic, but Putin appears to have seized this opportunity to set a very welcoming tone. However cynical a move, it’s an intelligent one. Rejecting whole groups in your community will turn them against you and provide a fertile ground for recruitment for extremist groups. Compare this with Orban publicly qualifying Roma Hungarian citizens as aliens which he generously was not bothering the rest of Europe with. A Roma mayor resigned in protest at the slur. It’s a good illustration of how to create enemies.
A further important point is that Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey will be assisted by the EU in dealing with the refugee crisis. Turkey has over two million refugees so far and between 30 and 40% of the Lebanese population are refugees. A particularly difficult point is that Lebanon was occupied by Syria between 1976 and 2005 so understandably there are tensions, not to mention the situation of Syrian Kurds in Turkey. The EU will give one billion euro additional funding for the UN High Commisioner for Refugees and for the World Food Programme. More money will also be allocated to address the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa. A plea was also made for renewed diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis in Syria and to ensure the formation of a government of national unity in Libya where refugees tend to be IDPs (Internally Displaced People).
The next European Summit will be held on the 15th – 16th October where the European leaders and heads of state will once again focus on migration.