One man's loss is another man's gain. Some countries in and outside of the EU are trying to capitalize on the refugee crisis to relieve their budgets.
The refugee crisis has turned a lot of things upside down in Europe, putting many of the old rules into a new context. One such rule is the economic stability criteria for EU member states. Several EU countries claim that they now spend additional money on refugees in order for the EU Commission to acknowledge this expense in their budgets.
In principle, Brussels agrees with this view. At the end of October, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised member states hit especially hard by the refugee crisis the prospect of a more flexible interpretation of the regulations.
Austria, for example, has a good chance of including extraordinary costs in its budget. But Juncker adds, "there are countries, and several big ones among them, that do not do enough." By that, he probably meant France, which has had problems balancing its budget for years. But France's problems extend beyond the influx of refugees, as Paris has agreed to take in relatively few refugees when compared to other countries.
The EU Commission is obviously concerned that countries will want to use the refugee crisis as an opportunity to ask for special privileges, a view the German government shares. Martin Jäger, the spokesman for the German Ministry of Finance, said, "We think it is wrong to water down the stability pact with regard to these problems."
'The others are doing it too'
The Greek government has taken a particularly brash approach. Since Athens has only implemented about a quarter of the reforms stipulated by the EU, creditors are holding back the next 2-billion-euro installment. The Greek government has asked its partners for a bit of goodwill concerning its disproportionate burden in the flow of refugees.
As Greek Immigration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas put it, "Italy, and other nations are [bending the rules too]."
No one denies the fact that Greece bears a heavy load. But the EU Commission has already provided Athens with almost 6 million euros of financial support for refugee assistance. In any case, the German government will offer "no discount", ministry spokesman Jäger stressed. During a visit to the Greek capital on Thursday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked Athens, "not to make new requests at this time or put forward demands any time a small difficulty arises."
But finances are now used as a bargaining chip in the distribution of refugees. Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem has argued that, "EU countries that refuse to cooperate in the reception of asylum seekers should perhaps have their funding cut in Brussels."
The Commission estimates that this would be legally difficult. Yanis Emmanouilidis, from the Brussels think-tank European Policy Centre, also believes it would be politically unwise to employ this means of motivating member states. He explained that, "a delicate issue like the refugee question requires attempts at compromising and even understanding the other side."
The great disappointment of some "old" EU members over the rejectionist attitude of new EU member states in eastern Europe became evident in a surprisingly undiplomatic remark made by EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, who comes from France. He said, "it was our obligation to include countries that had escaped from Soviet tyranny. We have done so with enthusiasm." Now, however, he feels that "great cultural differences" between some of these countries and the former "Western Europe" have become clear.
Ankara in control
The Turkish government has an upper hand in the situation because most refugees enter Europe via Turkey. The country has indeed promised to prevent migrants from fleeing and to take back refugees, but wants to charge a high price for the work. Shortly before the Turkish election, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Recep Tayyip Erdogan financial aid, visa liberalization for Turkish nationals and support in the faltering EU accession negotiations. She is, however, an open opponent of full EU membership for Turkey and aware of the poor human rights situation in the country.
But the EU is under pressure. Recently, EU Commission President Juncker openly admitted in European Parliament, "Whether we like it or not, we need to work together with Turkey." Later on in Paris, he said that if Turkey "opens its gates, two to three million refugees will come." Europe must "pay the Turks the price."
"Erdogan will demand a lot and we will be willing to give a lot," explains Yanis Emmanouilidis, but only "if he will actually be able to do what he has promised." The Europeans have only themselves to blame for their dependency on Turkey because they "have let the situation come to a head." Emmanouilidis also said, "Solidarity among the member states is very weak. Fragmentation has continued to increase." Although he does not believe that Europe will fall apart as a result of this problem, he thinks it is a "very serious challenge" that the EU will be dealing with for years to come.