The European Council meeting on Thursday was different. The heads of state and government didn't discuss details of obscure European policies, but rather tackled what German Chancellor Angela Merkel called a "historic challenge for Europe."
Unfortunately, the leaders didn't rise to the challenge, which is, of course, the refugee crisis. Compared to the last summit three weeks ago, no real progress has been made. On the contrary: while there were some half-hearted calls to at least put into practice the financial decisions made last time, the chasm between the different camps on the refugee question has widened. European leaders are behaving as if they had all the time in the world to bicker over national interests. But that is not the case.
While thousands of people in Brussels, Berlin or Calais spent the night freezing in camps, the summit participants sat in the comfortable conference rooms discussing "hotspots," the reasons why people flee their homes, deportation agreements and aid funds for Africa, which are still glaringly empty.
Removed from reality
The heads of European politics apparently still haven't grasped that thousands of asylum applicants come to Europe every day via Greece and the Balkan route. Now is the time to act - not next month or next year. There are concepts and initial approaches, but they're being put into practice way too slowly.
It's not yet clear how the many single parts should fit together. What's the use of oft-evoked protection of the EU borders if it's unclear what will happen to the refugees outside these borders? What's the use of registering people at "hotspots" if these hotspots aren't connected to large reception camps where the decision is made on whether to allow people into Europe or force them to turn around?
Those who want to protect borders must also be willing to set up transit zones along the borders. Those rejecting asylum applications must also go through with deportations. Transit zones have to be under surveillance or asylum applicants could simply bypass them. This all takes personnel and money. So far, however, the EU member states have neither agreed on how to implement any of their plan - or how to pay for them.
Schadenfreude over Merkel's misfortune
A number of governments in eastern Europe categorically reject taking in refugees. Others don't want to close off their countries completely and are somewhat happy that Germany bears the brunt of people seeking refuge in the EU. There is even something akin to schadenfreude in the air that the eternally successful and oh-so powerful Queen of Europe, Angela Merkel, now faces serious pressure and trouble. The secret hope is that Iron Merkel will give in on other EU issues to push her refugee policies through.
But does she have a plan? At this point, many in Brussels doubt it. The chancellor does say it's time to do away with the Dublin protocol calling for the first EU state refugees enter to process their asylum requests, but she has yet to present a plan for what should replace it. After all, this EU guideline has been in place for 25 years. The southern German state of Bavaria has insisted on the adherence to this rule vis-à-vis Austria, no matter what the chancellor thinks.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban refers to valid EU laws while going through with his contentious border-protection measures. He might be an ideological xenophobe, but unfortunately, he has a point. He's securing his border with Serbia and has created transit zones. In other words: he is doing exactly what the EU has in mind for its external frontier in Greece and Italy to curb the refugee rush.
And Orban is not alone. Poland and the Czech Republic are sending police to support him.
But the situation in the Balkans is on the verge of escalation. Hungary wants - more or less - to more close its border with fellow EU member Croatia and prohibit the transit of refugees. This would either lead to chaos in Croatia or refugees would have to go through Slovenia to get to Austria.
Hungary has called on Greece to finally take care of "their" refugees themselves, in accordance with the Dublin regulation. But Athens isn't doing much to get there and prefers to cash in aid money for the Aegean islands.
EU states are now counting on Turkey to carry more of the burden. The country is supposed to keep Syrian refugees in their own country, fight traffickers and maintain better control its own borders. Understandably, Turkey is asking a high price to do what Brussels is asking.
But Europe is willing to pay - both in terms of cash, possibly up to 3 billion euros, and politically, by speeding up visa-free travel for Turks and honoring President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a flawless democrat. The hope in Brussels is that if the problem is moved to the outside of the 28-member bloc, EU members won't have to fight as much on the inside.
That has very little to do with European solidarity. As Chancellor Merkel might say it: if the unified refugee policy fails, Europe fails.
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