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The EU, Merkel, and the fate of refugees

June 25, 2018

Battening down the EU's hatches: Can ideas from Sunday's mini-summit appease Germany's CSU in its quarrel with the chancellor over refugees? Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Horst Seehofer and Angela Merkel
Buying time: Chancellor Merkel and Interior Minister Seehofer have postponed their migration showdown until after this week's EU summitImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

Sunday's mini-summit in Brussels on asylum policies that convened at the behest of beleaguered German Chancellor Angela Merkel ended without decisions, and left nothing in writing.

But the speeches by the 16 heads of state and government did offer insight into the direction the EU will be headed at the summit later this week. The question is whether the proposals raised can bolster Merkel in her current dispute with her interior minister, Horst Seehofer from conservative sister party the CSU, or whether it's migration hardliner Seehofer who stands to profit. He is demanding short-term effective measures, namely turning back asylum seekers at Germany's borders. Merkel advocates bilateral accords between EU countries to fix the bloc's migration problem. To what extent are the ideas floated in Brussels likely to impact Merkel's government crisis?

Improve protection of EU's external borders:

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, can expect to employ 10,000 new officers by 2021. Their powers are very limited at this point, so the EU would like to expand their mandate. But who exactly are they supposed to protect the EU from, and are they expected to prevent refugees, asylum-seekers or migrants from entering the EU? A larger fleet would be necessary to safeguard the borders in the Mediterranean Sea.

Impact on the German domestic dispute: The proposal isn't likely to affect the CSU's dispute with the chancellor, simply because it would take too long to implement. Horst Seehofer wants action now.

Frontex border guard
Beefing up Frontex is on the agenda, but it's a longer term projectImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Reception centers for migrants outside the EU:

Several EU member states — including Austria — advocate setting up reception centers in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants picked up on the Mediterranean. The idea is to prevent travel to the EU, while deciding on site which people actually stand a chance of being granted asylum. The idea is not new; it was previously floated 14 years ago by former German Interior Minister Otto Schily. But foreign "hotspots" have never taken off because no country has agreed to set up such a center. Now, several EU member states want to push the issue by offering Libya a substantial amount of money. Some have mentioned setting up a processing center on an uninhabited island in the Mediterranean — that's the "Australian" model favored by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz .

Impact on the German domestic dispute: This proposal, too, is unlikely to have much of an impact. Horst Seehofer may like the idea of setting up "hotspots", but the plan would take months, if not years, to implement.

Reception centers within the EU:

France, Spain and Italy could also suggest reception centers in port cities within the EU for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean — likewise for on-site decisions concerning entry into the EU or immediate deportation. The "hotspots" would have to be guarded to prevent illegal entry into the respective EU state. Hungary follows this practice on its border with Serbia: people are held in a transit zone right on the border and sent back after very brief asylum proceedings. Merkel, too, has suggested deciding on asylum at the EU's external borders, even hinting at a "common European asylum office."

Impact on the German domestic dispute: Horst Seehofer may like the idea, but the plan would take months, if not years.

Guard looks through barbed wire fence
Hungary has already sealed off its borderImage: Reuters/L. Balogh

Deport rejected asylum-seekers:

Deportation has long been a legal option, demanded time and again by the EU Commission. The aim is to return at least 70 percent of the rejected asylum seekers back to their native countries, a quota that neither Germany nor other affected countries such as Italy currently fulfill. The plan involves speeding up the asylum process: At the moment, a process that according to European guidelines should take a maximum of six months can take several years in Germany.

Impact on the German domestic dispute: This would require an overhaul of the German asylum system, something both the CDU and the CSU have repeatedly pledged to do.

Prevent "secondary" migration:

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants leave their country of entry into the EU, say Italy or Greece, and simply head on to another EU country. Some enter a country with a valid visa and simply stay after the visa has expired. In the hope of deterring secondary migration, the EU is proposing larger fines as well as stripping secondary migrants of all social benefits, board and lodging.

Impact on the German domestic dispute: This is a procedure Horst Seehofer is bound to like. However, from a legal standpoint it is currently not possible to immediately turn back all illegal entries at the border. People who apply for asylum have the right to an investigation into which EU country is actually responsible for them. That is almost impossible at the border because Eurodac, the database used for fingerprinting asylum seekers, is neither comprehensive nor made for rapid scans.

Bilateral and trilateral accords:

The chancellor has resorted to speaking of bilateral and trilateral accords because she has realized that there will be no comprehensive European solution. It remains unclear what deals she plans with which states. Neither Austria nor Italy are interested in taking back people turned away at the German border. Italy's right-wing populist interior minister has in fact outright refused any such proposition — even if the Dublin Regulations are clear on the responsibilities concerning asylum proceedings.

Impact on the German domestic dispute: Horst Seehofer might like such agreements if they had a timely effect.

Bye-bye, Dublin?

Germany's refugee row: Can Merkel survive?

Italy wants to cancel the regulation stipulating the responsibility of the country of first entry, and instead immediately distribute new arrivals throughout the EU using a quota system. Both Merkel and Seehofer are against scrapping the Dublin Regulations, arguing that without the procedure, even more people would try to travel directly to Germany without registering anywhere else. Merkel has indicated that she is not totally opposed to distributing asylum seekers in an effort to relieve Italy, while Seehofer is likely not in favor of the quota solution.

The next step is the actual EU summit to be held later this week with all 28 member states. Only after the summit will Seehofer decide whether he's prepared to put Germany's hard-won coalition government with Merkel's conservative CDU and the Social Democrats at risk over the migration issue.


Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union