Photo Gallery: The EU's Migration Quagmire


Migration Crisis The EU's Shipwrecked Refugee Plan

When 800 refugees drowned on their way to Europe this April, leaders promised to act. Just over two months later, the EU's attempts at real reform have all but failed -- and thrown up some dark moral questions.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, April 19, 2015, a 20-meter fishing boat, overloaded with people, capsized about 70 nautical miles off the Libyan coast and 180 kilometers (107 miles) from Europe. In the hours and days after the accident, this boat seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back. This shipwreck, with an estimated 800 dead, had seemingly brought a sense of humanity back to Europe. The accident became a test for Brussels and, for the eight weeks that followed, Europeans took a critical look at the purpose of their 28-country union.

On the day after the accident, with the bodies still drifting in the sea off Libya, European Union foreign ministers met in Luxembourg. It was a regular meeting, but very little of it was routine, and in light of the disaster, interior ministers were also in attendence. The sheer horror of the incident was palpable.

It was the last straw in a series of deadly disasters at sea. The attendees approved an ad hoc 10-point plan and discussed expanding emergency nautical rescues, destroying traffickers' boats and an "emergency mechanism for the resettlement" of refugees, which would address the old and unresolved question of how the new arrivals should be fairly distributed among all EU member states. This time they were determined to find an answer -- the credibility and the idealistic core of the European Union were at stake.

Three days later, on April 23, European leaders rushed to Brussels to attend a special summit. Acknowledging Europe's responsibility, they turned their attention to the Mediterranean. No one questioned the seriousness of the hour -- and no one refuted the claim that saving refugees had become a priority, that it was now time for action.

The meeting began with a minute of silence and ended with an emotionally charged statement: The European Union will "do everything possible to save people from dying at sea," the statement read. But, as it turned out, that wouldn't be the case.

Even at this first crisis meeting, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was rebuffed in his call for solidarity. British Prime Minister David Cameron refused immediately, a Polish representative rejected new obligations and both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande were undecided and unwilling to make any strong statements. It was the same old European game, where public statements are meaningless and only closed-door agreements ultimately count.

The 28 governments were truly shocked about what had happened, but at odds from the start. Partly to stall for time, they asked the European Commission and its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to come up with a political plan on the enormous topic of migration. It was time to put an end to the bickering over details and come up with an agenda, a roadmap that could become law throughout Europe. But that too would not materialize.

This Thursday, a binding agreement over the number of refugees to be accepted by various European countries was to be reached by a summit of European leaders. A grand new chapter, complete with pomp and pathos, was supposed to begin in the history of Europe and its treatment of refugees and displaced people.

"I'll tell you what will happen," says the ambassador of a large EU country. "The refugee issue will be discussed for half an hour at the summit, and after that, the group will spend two days and two nights addressing the only two subjects that are truly important at the moment: Grexit and Brexit - Greece's withdrawal from the euro zone and Great Britain's withdrawal from the EU."

The refugee agenda was ground up in the mills of EU bureaucracy. In recent weeks, SPIEGEL visited European summits, secured background interviews with a dozen EU ambassadors and was been able to view confidential documents and minutes. The EU, challenged by the public, by citizens and by the media over whether it has a purpose and what that purpose is, has failed yet another stress test.

The True Heart of Brussels

For many Europeans today, Brussels is a faraway, unpopular capital, a center of political cynicism. But no other European city has such a large concentration of well-educated, committed people, and no other world city is home to a comparably bold political experiment as its attempt to create a union out of once deeply hostile national states. This fundamental quality is quickly lost in the city's daily routine.

No one knows this better than the ambassadors of the 28 EU countries who form the EU Committee of Permanent Representatives. They meet several times a week for agonizing sessions referred to in EU speak by their French abbreviation COREPER II. These permanent representatives are the ones who manage Europe's affairs, which is why COREPER II is the most powerful control center in Brussels' everyday business.

The permanent members -- Stefano Sannino from Italy, Reinhard Silberberg from Germany, Raimundas Karoblis from Lithuania, Martin Povejšil from the Czech Republic, Ilze Juhansone from Latvia, Alfonso Dastis Quecedo from Spain and Pierre Sellal from France -- knew from the start that the refugee agenda was nothing but paper.

The group represents Europe in their everyday lives. Correspondents meet with them to sound out their opinions and gain a better understanding of procedures. Their do not offer catchy quotes and headline-making news, but an understanding of the circumstances. Brussels isn't like Berlin; here, eurocrats wrestle over solutions and compromises, not majorities. Their work rarely involves political squabbles and competition between parties and individuals. In Brussels, countries and their governments fight over positions and the prerogative of interpretation, but their interactions are dominated by a tone of great respect. In the EU capital, polemics are considered a faux pas.

This is why so little information from Brussels reaches the outside world, and why quotes are often only anonymous and indirect. When Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission for the last six months, speaks bluntly to the European Parliament, people's heads turns. On April 29, he said: "I have had enough of poetry. I find the rhetoric of concern attractive at first but not all the time." He promised to support "the introduction of a European quota system" for refugees, and he made good on that promise on May 13, when the Commission's "European Agenda on Migration " was unveiled.

In their original form, the corresponding Commission documents are titled: "COM (2015) 241 final: Draft Amending Budget No. 5 to the General Budget 2015 - Responding to Migratory Pressures." Juncker sent his commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, to the Commission's press room to sell it to the media. There was great interest, and, in an exception to the rule, all the seats at the midday press conference were taken.

Avramopoulos, a 62-year-old Greek with charisma and wit, presented the plan, which essentially consisted of two elements. First, the European Commission recommended directly accepting 20,000 refugees from crisis-stricken regions in the coming two years, and using a quota system to distribute them across the 28 member states. Second, the burden on EU countries like Italy, Greece and Malta, on whose coasts most of the refugees land, was to be reduced. Some 40,000 people were to be "taken off their hands," also with the help of a fixed distribution scheme.

Pushback Against Quotas

Under the Commission proposal, the quotas was to be be calculated based on criteria like population, economic strength, the number of refugees already accepted and even unemployment. Depending on the quota, 15.43 to 18.42 percent of the refugees were to be allocated to Germany, with the first batch consisting of more than 10,000 people. Countries like Latvia and Croatia. however, were to see only a few hundred refugees.

But when rumors of a mandatory quota emerged, the first member states reacted with outrage. "The idea that somebody allows some refugees in their own country and then distributes them to other member states is mad and unfair," said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom Juncker only half-kiddingly calls the "dictator."

Many member states criticized the Commission for not sticking to the mandate established by European leaders at their special summit three weeks ago. They said that the Council had mentioned "voluntary, emergency redistribution" and a "voluntary pilot project" to resettle refugees. As they spoke, they drew lines in the sand.

"In a spirit of greater solidarity, we are determined to implement this comprehensive approach, which will improve significantly the management of migration in Europe," said Commissioner Avramopoulos, ending his appeal with the words: "I sincerely hope that the Member States will do their part to make this Agenda a reality."

Only a few hours later, on the afternoon of May 13, the 28 permanent representatives met in the European Council building, across the street on Rue de la Loi. Minutes of this and other meetings, to which SPIEGEL has gained access -- as well as telexes from embassies in Brussels to their respective ministries at home and the statements of the ambassadors involved -- create the impression of a growing rift, worded in the dry language of diplomacy.

"Hungary and the Czech Republic found fault with the lack of geographic balance," one of the cable reports reads. "In light of the figures, Luxembourg was astonished," "Poland expressed its concerns over a mandatory ruling and called for compliance with the voluntary principle," and "Germany expressed astonishment; the member states voicing negative opinions may very well demand solidarity in the future, and will then be averse to being confronted with the term 'voluntary'."

Representatives of Eastern and Central European countries, often referred to as "the new ones" among EU ambassadors, as well as those of a few Southern European countries, announced their refusal to accept any quota. The Polish delegation noted that solidarity can take many forms, and variations of this theme were then expressed for weeks to come. Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Spain and Romania used the same argument in voicing their objections to "imposed" solidarity.

Representatives asked difficult questions: How can we make fingerprinting a requirement? Do we have to set up intake offices? How can the migrants be kept in the country if their true objective is to continue to Germany, Sweden or France? Should they be forced to remain in the country? Should they be housed in barracks?

'Poorly Concealed Racism'

The number of detailed issues brought up by the 28 countries -- with their 28 governments and 28 individual histories -- soon multiplied. The allocation formula proposed by the Commission was questioned and portrayed as unfair. Small countries like Lithuania argued that they would be required to accept a larger number of boat people in proportion to their population as much larger countries like Poland. Sweden, Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Malta, Finland, Portugal and the Netherlands appealed, more or less vociferously, to the spirit of solidarity, repeatedly expressing their "surprise" over objections. Sometimes 10 ambassadors were saying precisely the same thing.

The discussions were more open on the sidelines of the meetings, at evening receptions on cool Brussels terraces, where people spoke of the "shameless nationalism" of individual members and "poorly concealed racism." Western European representatives were critical of the Eastern Europeans for only wanting to accept "white, Catholic" refugees, while the Eastern Europeans accused their Western colleagues of moral conceit. One of the ambassadors, who attended all of the meetings and some of the receptions, says: "From today's perspective, the agenda was dead an hour after it was born."

Europe is a miserable place for anyone who values clear and quick decisionmaking, especially when it comes to migration policy. The EU has been trying to develop a joint refugee and asylum policy since 1997. The Treaty of Amsterdam, signed in October 1997, was a breakthrough, because it shifted the power to address these issues from individual nations to Brussels. Even then, Ireland and Great Britain won the right not to participate in migration policy, as did Denmark.

In the Tampere program of 1999, the European governments advocated a collective asylum system and a more in-depth migration policy. EC Regulation No. 343/2003 -referred to today as "Dublin II," upheld the rule that asylum seekers must submit their applications in the country they first entered. The 2004 Hague Program, with its initial 10-point plan, introduced all the concepts still being used in today's memos. But Europe still lacks the courage to use the word "quota."

In 2013, Italy launched its "Mare Nostrum" sea rescue program as a reaction to the refugee tragedies in the Mediterranean. Italian ships began patrolling waters all the way to the Libyan coast. In November 2014, the program was replaced by "Triton," an operation designed to seal off the borders rather than rescue shipwreck victims. Triton had a monthly budget of €2.9 million ($3.3 million), a number that doesn't reflect European leaders' passionate vow to do "everything in their power to prevent the loss of more lives at sea." The amount would disappear thousands of times over in the bailout packages for banks and bankrupt nations. It corresponds to 0.006 cents per capita for Europe.

It is worth considering whether the EU, because of its structure, can even be held responsible for success or failure. Since the 1990s, when the great Frenchman Jacques Delors helped the Commission gain substantial power, its luster has faded. The individual countries continue to lead the dance, and the European Council, a body made up by their governments, is no longer a place where the union can be made stronger.

Clarity Take Precedence over Details

The Justus Lipsius Council building, named after a Flemish humanist, is an impressive Brussels landmark. Here, the large wall of EU buildings juts up against a large roundabout named after the French statesman Robert Schuman. On May 18, five days after the publication of the Commission's draft of its refugee agenda, the EU foreign and defense ministers convened in the building, where they sat in two concentric circles.

The seating plan was essentially alphabetical, but based on the names of countries in their native languages: Hrvatska, Suomi, Magyarország and Elláda. Ursula von der Leyen was seated between Finland and Portugal. A single wheat roll was placed in front of each member. It was the first Council meeting following the presentation of the agenda.

The session was long and filled with technical details. Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti spoke of a "new solidarity in Europe," a reference to the deployment of one British and two German warships to the southern Mediterranean. "The first concrete element is truly this military response," she said. But the military aspect was the easy part, a logical system of means and ends, clearly allocated according to jurisdiction and assumption of costs.

The funding for the Frontex border protection agency and the Triton program was tripled, with the objective of improving detection of migration routes, and a command center was set up in Rome. The new mission was dubbed the European Union Naval Operation for the Mediterranean, or EUNavForMed. It sounded more like a wartime operation than a program intended to help migrants.

All of the ministers agreed that Europe could not allow people to drown. That agenda was easy to explain to the media, as all those present did at length, including Von der Leyen. But it was also about the only thing the attendees could agree on. The real core of the agenda, the concept of mandatory distribution - a quota - was tabled.

For citizens and voters, it can be worthwhile to consider the motives and constraints of Europe's ministers and other government leaders. As politicians, they depend on being elected and reelected to parliaments and positions. They are all aware that voters lose interest when it comes to details, and that they cheer when the nitty-gritty is sacrificed for clarity.

Marine Le Pen of France's Front National isn't garnering upwards of 20 percent of votes because she is the best at explaining the causes and structures of migration. She is successful because she denies migration, and because she explains nothing and recommends that voters stick their heads in the sand and resolutely keep their pocketbooks shut.

Parties like the Front National exist throughout Europe, in Denmark and the Netherlands, in Italy, Hungary, Great Britain and Greece. They combine xenophobia with a rejection of the European concept. This is the environment in which politicians are now being forced to negotiate, and as a result, they must be on their guard. This is why the "quota" is politically toxic. It generates more resentment than applause at home, making it unenforceable in Brussels.

This is the European refrain: Things are not progressing, that they are not moving quickly or far enough. Perhaps the Europeans are too ambitious? Too impatient? That would be the positive assessment. On the issue of migration, the more obvious conclusion is also the less flattering one: that Europeans are determined to protect their own affluence, and that they ultimately view the noble concept of humanitarianism as a luxury and Fortress Europe as a practical necessity.

A Continent Shut Off from the World

Anyone who is troubled by the images and news stories of people drowning in the Mediterranean should realize that they are the consequence of prevailing policy in Europe. Safe, legal paths to Europe no longer exist for migrants and refugees.

Until a few years ago, most refugees reached Europe by land. One point of access was Melilla, the Spanish enclave on Moroccan soil. In 2005, in reaction to the large number of applicants for asylum, the government in Madrid, with the help of the EU, spent more than €30 million to construct a bulwark along the border to Melilla: three fences, 12 kilometers long and six meters (20 feet) high, secured with concertina wire, to seal off the continent against immigrants.

Other countries followed Spain's example. In 2012, Greece built a wire fence along its border with Turkey. A few kilometers to the east, Bulgaria, as part of a "containment plan," built a 30-kilometer metal fence, which is to be lengthened to almost 160 kilometers by next summer, when it will seal off virtually the entire border between Bulgaria and Turkey. Hungary has just announced the construction of a fence along its border with Serbia. But migrants will continue to seek out and find routes, and the sea route will always be the last option. At least 25,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2000.

The EU is trying to push its defenses against migrants beyond its own borders. Morocco, Libya and Ukraine have been enlisted to participate in the Europe's migration control efforts and are being paid to improve their border controls and build prisons for irregular migrants. In some of its corners, Europe looks like a house with its doors and windows nailed shut.

It isn't as if the powers that be are unaware of any of these policies, nor is it true that they are oblivious to their detrimental impact. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who will assume the semiannually rotating European Council presidency on July 1 and, in this position, will have to negotiate the remnants of the migration agenda between the Council and the European Parliament, has put it most clearly and with unusually sharp language.

Bettel claims that at the special summit in late April, everyone had proclaimed that something had to happen. "That solidarity quickly disappeared in the last few weeks. I understand that an immigration policy is not necessarily popular, and that it needs to be explained to the public at home. But if we in the Council end up having to vote on human fates, I will feel ashamed. If the Council president has to use a pocket calculator to calculate whether he can assemble a majority for solidarity with the refugees, I will feel ashamed."

'The EU Betrays Its Values'

The discussion about outsourced detention centers for migrants in North Africa, which is being portrayed as a new solution, and the gesture of deploying warships against traffickers in the Mediterranean - these things have been around for a long time. "We have had the same debates in asylum policy for decades," says Stefan Keßler, who has worked in the field of migration for the last 30 years. He represents another group of players on the Brussels stage: NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. Since 2009, Keßler has worked as a lobbyist for the Jesuit refugee service in Brussels.

Keßler is no EU skeptic, and is enthusiastic about Europe, but the work in Brussels has changed his perspective, he says. "The EU betrays its values in its treatment of refugees. Instead of acting like a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it behaves like an economic alliance."

In his book "Shipwreck: The Failure of European Refugee Policy," Keßler describes in detail how the EU countries are sealing off the continent and thus making themselves culpable in the deaths of refugees. He also points to alternatives. For instance, he writes, Europe should invest in internal European resettlement programs, refugees could be given so-called embassy visas, and people from crisis-ridden countries who are seeking protection and asylum should be exempted from visa requirements.

"The dying will only stop if refugees can travel to Europe legally," says Keßler. But it's impossible to secure a majority for that idea in Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Brussels. "Countries are pushing refugees back and forth like toxic waste."

The EU can be no better than its member states. The Commission, which consistently bears the brunt of all anger, is not a real government, not even in the supranational sense. It is essentially a giant coordinating agency that is constantly trying to transform incompatible goals into compromises.

Whether the issue is bailout funds for Ireland, Portugal or Greece, trade agreements like TTIP or the regulation of banks, clear plans turn into complicated ones and good intentions yield tepid results. Their details are agonizingly negotiated by the envoys of individual countries, by Stefano Sannino from Italy, Raimundas Karoblis from Lithuania, Martin Povejšil from the Czech Republic, Ilze Juhansone from Latvia, Reinhard Silberberg from Germany and Pierre Sellal from France.

Who Needs Europe?

These are all educated, experienced people who may, in these days and weeks, be asking themselves the unsettling question of whether they, the EU, even know what its purpose is. The dead in the Mediterranean, and Europe's treatment of the plight of refugees and the displaced, could serve as evidence of the moral failure of the community of nations. Who needs Europe? And what for?

The interior ministers, who came together last Tuesday at the Luxembourg Congress Center for a routine meeting, behaved as if these kinds of questions were not even being raised.

Ironically, on the 30th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement on the elimination of border controls, such controls are returning to Europe. France, Austria and Switzerland have closed their border to Italy for refugees. In the Italian-French border town of Ventimiglia, some refugees even tried to jump into the sea to swim around the French border guards and thus avoid them.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has threatened to introduce a "Plan B," which "would first and foremost hurt Europe." Renzi did not elaborate, but everyone knew what he meant: Italian officials could simply stop registering new migrants, perhaps even giving them a three-month Schengen visa and directing them to the nearest station where trains depart for Austria, Germany and France.

The interior ministers of France, Germany and Italy - Bernard Cazeneuve, Thomas de Maizière and Angelino Alfano - were in good spirits on Tuesday. They demonstratively called each other by their first names, described themselves as "three friends" and spoke of compromises that needed to be reached. "Bernard" and "Thomas" had already reached an informal agreement some time ago, and now "Angelino" was also going along with it.

But it is not the agenda that has been under discussion for the last eight weeks. Somehow there is now a new plan, quickly assembled by the governments, to provide the frontier countries with more assistance in registering refugees. Recognized asylum seekers will somehow be redistributed, but without a quota, and anyone else will have to be deported as quickly as possible. How this is to occur, who will be sent where, and why, and who will pay for what - all of these questions remain unanswered. There were moments on Tuesday when it seemed as if the EU agenda, complete with its proposals and subsequent discussions, never existed.

A Sideways Step

But the governments should not ignore the Commission. Last Wednesday, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was sitting at the large conference table in his office, on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont Building. He was visibly furious as he voiced his contempt for the skeptics in the European Council. "It isn't enough to sit in front of your TV screen at night and weep because people are drowning in the Mediterranean, and then to hold a minute of silence in the Council the next morning," he said. Juncker, whose speech is normally filled with irony and humor, was noticeably serious.

He said that he would not base his convictions on the mood in some member states. "All those who run after populists become populists themselves, whether they want to or not," said Juncker, noting that he will adhere to the proposals. "Even if the next European Council challenges us," said Juncker, "we will not back down."

A few days earlier, the meeting of interior ministers ended after five hours, and "views were exchanged" over documents with names like ASIM 39, FRONT 126, RELEX 469 and COMIX 273. The agenda was also debated, apparently without enthusiasm, and, as expected, there was no agreement on a quota.

As the interior ministers were leaving, Migration Commissioner Avramopoulos, from Greece, called after them: "Solidarity cannot be voluntary." He is fighting on Juncker's side for the quota, but there is currently no majority support for quotas among the member states, and it is questionable whether a majority can be achieved by the start of the summit of heads of state and government next week.

"Our criteria are objective, qualifiable and realistic," says Avramopoulos, "and we will defend our proposal to the end." The words "to the end" are malleable to the point of being unthreatening. This is what has been happening for the last eight weeks, since a fishing boat sank more than 70 nautical miles of the Libyan coast. It is a sideways step. What's lacking is a step forward.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan