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Merkel rescued by EU deal?

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
June 29, 2018

The EU has reached an agreement on migration and Chancellor Angela Merkel is going along with it to save her own skin. But it's not a long-term solution for anyone, writes DW's Bernd Riegert.

Merkel in Brussels
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Erd

After 12 hours of negotiations, exhausted EU leaders presented an agreement on migration. It is above all a shift to the right of the political spectrum toward making it harder to cross into the EU. The populists have prevailed.

The problem is supposed to be moved outside of Europe's borders, where screening centers will be set up. Camps in Libya and other North African countries are supposed to have such a deterrent effect that African migrants don't even attempt to reach Europe via the Mediterranean in the first place. This strategy resembles the agreement with Turkey. In the Aegean, the prospect of no longer being able to leave the Greek islands has resulted in fewer asylum-seekers and migrants paying traffickers, boarding unseaworthy boots and reaching the EU. Deterrence is the order of the day – and it's nothing new. What's new is that is the euphemism for it: "regional disembarkation platforms." 

The EU wants to strengthen its partnership with Libya of all places, where migrants face exploitation and torture. The Libyan coast guard, already receiving EU support, will in future be responsible for fishing migrants out of a much larger area of the Mediterranean. The objective is clear: People who've put themselves in danger at sea will be sent back to where they came from. Another way to put it: deterrence.

Lots of money will cloak this strategy, as will the praise for EU-African cooperation, which is supposed to show results over the next decades. This is, of course, much too tedious for the current political problem. It's unfortunate that Italy's new government of right-wing populists, with its ruthless rejection of people stranded at sea, came out on top. At least on paper, Italy got its wish: closed centers in the EU, from which those who still manage to make it to Europe can be returned to their countries or relocated to countries willing to accept them. Blackmail, it turns out, was effective.

Shifting the blame to refugees and migrants

This strategy of deterrence might sound tough, but regarding the Libya-Italy route, it's still a figment of the EU's imagination. Who exactly will set up the centers and how exactly they will be guarded remains to be seen. According to the summit agreement, they shouldn't become an additional incentive to make the trek to the EU. Meaning, they must also be protected from migrants who are attempting to reach the centers in North Africa by land before crossing the Mediterranean.

Hard-liners in the EU who yield to populist pressure can revel in their victory. Hungary's prime minister, Victor Orban, can now rightly point to the fact that his idea – fences, deterrence and turning people back at the border – won in the end. The "Orbanization" of the EU's immigration policies is a frighteningly simple concept: Legal immigration to Europe doesn't even get a mention in the latest agreement.

That having been said, the breakthrough on Thursday is temporary. The EU's core problem – solidarity on migration among its member states – has not been solved but only put off until a later date. And here again, Orbanization  is making progress because there are no new rules on who's responsible for asylum applications. Dublin remains in force.

Merkel's neck still in a noose

And the German chancellor? Angela Merkel reached very little with regard to the political crisis gripping Germany. If Germany rejected asylum-seekers at the border – like her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, wants – then Austria would send them on over to Italy and close its own borders. Merkel hasn't yet reached any bilateral agreement on how things should proceed. She's moved toward the isolationist course of the remaining leaders at the summit to at least be able to talk about a "European solution." For the first time in a long time, Merkel didn't take the reins at an EU summit. Whether that suffices to reach a truce with her Bavarian sister party, the CSU, is questionable.

The summit gave the German chancellor few practical solutions. But the EU realized once again that certain issues debated through the night – for example, the problem of an "invasion," the "pressure straining the borders" – were only in the heads of populist governments and their increasingly xenophobic supporters. The number of migrants heading for Europe has dropped by 95 percent compared with 2015, according to the summit agreement. The question is how to prevent the remaining 5 percent from entering the EU.

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