A Continent Adrift Juncker Proposes Fixes to EU's Broken Asylum Policies

Europe's asylum policies are broken: That much has become clear in recent weeks amid the huge numbers of refugees entering the EU from the Western Balkans. Can policymakers bring the situation under control? By SPIEGEL Staff
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union address on Wednesday in Brussels.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union address on Wednesday in Brussels.


For Jean-Claude Juncker, politics is a full contact sport. As soon as the photographers' cameras begin to click, the European Commission president embraces his guests, or even gives them a peck on the cheek. Depending on his mood, he may also give them a friendly pat on the cheek. But above all, Juncker uses the four languages he speaks fluently to get his message across. He can switch effortlessly from French to English, and if the Commission chief needs to charm the Germans, he says something like, "And now let us continue in the language of the world champions."

Sometimes, though, the Luxembourger slips into the language of his country's easterly neighbor to express his state of mind. Recently, he addressed the vehement reproaches that have been lobbed at his office regarding the issue of refugees, many of which have come from Germany. "Das ist zum Kotzen," he said in German: "That makes me want to puke."

How to deal with the human tragedy playing out on Europe's southern beaches, in its major transportation hubs and along its internal borders, is a question that goes to the very heart of the EU. It concerns the bloc's president as much as the union on the whole, for the unity that binds the 28 members together is at risk of disintegrating. Juncker himself said during his State of the Union speech on Wednesday that "our European Union is not in a good state."

The southern countries want to be rid of the refugees, while the eastern states want nothing to do with them. The core powers, Germany and France, refuse to bear the burden alone. Hundreds of thousands of people have turned to Europe for protection from persecution and civil war, as outlined in Europe's founding treaties. But instead, they have found themselves in a cynical transfer station of sorts, trapped in the purgatory of European asylum law that isn't worthy of its name.

Graphic: What Juncker's quota system would look like.

Graphic: What Juncker's quota system would look like.


In the Lisbon Treaty, the EU lauds itself as an "area of freedom, security and justice." But these days, all those lofty concepts are rapidly losing their meaning. In Budapest, refugees from Syria storm the trains to Germany. In Austria, 71 people, including four children, agonizingly suffocate in the back of a truck. In the suburbs of Rome, refugees live in slums without electricity or water. In Calais,  thousands vegetate under tarps.

Every day, Europeans are left speechless by the latest horror stories  from the parallel world of the refugees. The most recent was a picture of the drowned Syrian boy Alan whose body had washed up on a beach. The photo went around the world. But rather than stand together in solidarity in the midst of this crisis, European politicians flee into their respective routines that some critics have rightly identified as organized irresponsibility. The member nations of the world's greatest economic area are obliged to alleviate the suffering of the refugees. But instead, new fences are being erected on Europe's external borders. Inside the Continent, mistrust abounds.

Imposing Her Will

Italy and Greece allow asylum-seekers to continue moving north, even though European law technically puts the onus of taking care of the new arrivals on them. The heads of state in eastern Europe work together to torpedo the Commission's plans for a better distribution of refugees as effectively as possible. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel only made the refugee issue a top priority once dormitories slated for asylum-seekers started burning.

Now Merkel is calling into question the very rules that Germany once put in place to deter immigrants. No wonder so many other heads of state are accusing the chancellor of imposing her will on them just as she did during the Greek bailouts.

Even Commission President Juncker hasn't yet been able to usher the quarreling governments to a common ground. This week, he has introduced a proposal to provide "safe legal avenues for those in need of protection" and for the distribution of refugees throughout the EU.

But whether his chances of convincing the hesitant member states this time around are better than they were in past months is questionable.

"Not finding solutions now would endanger more than just the rules of Schengen and Dublin. We must have no illusions about this," the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has warned. "Europe is based on the promise that common problems are to be solved on the basis of a fair coexistence. If we fail at this in the current situation, that idea -- the only chance for Europe in the 21st century -- will be severely damaged."

One person for whom the European idea still means something is Hussain al-Ali. Last Wednesday, he was standing at Keleti Station in Budapest, a recent focal point of Europe's migrant disaster. Ali wanted to board a train to Munich but the police had just closed off the station again.


Photo Gallery: Heading West


Sirens wailed across the plaza in front of the station. In the evening, a lone van with loudspeakers drove by, surrounded by police officers. In Arabic, a woman's voice, called for the "illegal migrants" to register themselves in Hungary. Her voice was drowned out by the noise of the demonstrators, who after a few minutes called out, "Liar! Liar!" and turned away.

'They Don't Even Want Us'

Hussain al-Ali observed the scene from a distance. The man is in his thirties and wears rimless glasses. He studied German philology in Damascus. But last week, he was sleeping with a dozen other Syrians on the below-ground level of the railway station, along with hundreds of other desperate souls.

He wants to continue to Germany. "Why are the Hungarians keeping us here?" he asks. "They don't even want us."

It's a fair question, one that goes right to the heart of the problem. Europe's asylum and refugee law includes a central clause called the Dublin Regulation. This rule puts the onus of responsibility for refugees on the country in which a refugee first sets foot on EU soil.

Ali would thus have to stay in a country in which he doesn't want to be and that has no intention of letting him stay. The European rules have long since begun to crumble. Much like Italy and Greece, Hungary too has started to simply let refugees continue moving north. And because Vienna also temporarily suspended its checks last Monday, thousands of refugees were able to head to Rosenheim and Munich's central station.

It was a violation of the rules, sure, but what did anyone expect? Contradictory statements from the German side about freedom of movement for refugees had emboldened them to move freely. And they weren't alone. Authorities in the transit countries also felt encouraged to cease checking people.

Dublin, after all, had always been a comfortable arrangement for Germany. States with borders along the EU's periphery were where the brunt of any uptick in immigration would be felt most. In the past, any attempts by the EU Commission or the European Parliament to change these rules were quickly put down by some member states, Germany first among them.

Only on Paper

It was never much of a secret that Europe's common policy toward asylum-seekers existed only on paper. The services to which refugees are entitled, how they are to be taken care of and housed -- it all varies dramatically from country to country.

In fact, EU member states can't even agree on who to classify as a refugee. That indecision has resulted in a situation in which Finland, for instance, accepted 43 percent of asylum requests from Kosovo in 2014 while Germany only accepted 1.1 percent.

Whether in a poor country like Bulgaria or a rich one like Italy, the minimum standards for handling refugees have never been consistently implemented across Europe. In Germany, refugees who are allowed to stay receive social benefits, language courses and an apartment. In Italy, Europe's fourth largest economy, they get nothing of the sort.

Instead, thousands of migrants bivouac in parks or in shelters such as the "Palazzo Salam," a former university building on the city's outskirts. The situation is even worse in Greece, where years of economic crisis have left officials overwhelmed and unable to take care of those seeking protection. On the Aegean island of Kos, the local mayor didn't know what else to do, so he locked new arrivals in a stadium for days with hardly any food or water.

Stories like these don't always evoke solidarity in the rest of Europe. On the contrary, the eastern states in particular are increasingly turning away. For many people there, the idea of letting in thousands of refugees seems impertinent. Sure, the eastern Europeans have enjoyed an economic upswing in the past few years, but that good fortune was mostly concentrated in the cities. In terms of their high unemployment and miserable infrastructure, there is a striking similarity between the rural areas in eastern Hungary, Poland and Slovakia and the developing countries from where the refugees are fleeing. Instead of taking care of Africans, let's put our own people first -- so goes the thinking of many eastern Europeans.

On top of that, Poland feels like it is on the front lines in the conflict with Russia. Since fighting started in neighboring Ukraine, the Poles have begun to think it would be unfair to burden them with those in need from other regions of the world.

Thankless Task

For that reason, it's not only right-wing populists like Hungary's nationalist, conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who oppose the refugee policies being spearheaded in Berlin and Brussels. Many eastern Europeans are of the opinion that Germany's high standards and protracted asylum procedures make it an attractive destination for many refugees. Berlin's contradictory statements concerning the Dublin Regulation also left many European leaders shaking their heads. "From a human perspective, it's understandable, but it has the effect that now even more people want to make their way to Germany through the Balkans," says Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

Luxembourg currently holds the rotating European Council presidency, leaving Asselborn with the thankless task of taking a lead role in mediating the refugee issue. "If we succeed in preventing the southern and (core EU) countries from siding against the eastern states, we'll have achieved a lot," he says.

So far, however, there is little evidence of this. In order to coax the reluctant eastern Europeans into backing down, politicians from countries willing to receive refugees have already broached the idea of imposing sanctions. "The European Union should only sponsor projects in countries taking in too few refugees if they display a willingness to do more," says Austria's Chancellor Werner Faymann.

Graphic: Balkan asylum seekers in Germany.

Graphic: Balkan asylum seekers in Germany.


There are some in Germany's federal government who also subscribe to such an idea. Development Aid Minister Gerd Müller and the Social Democratic Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks have expressed similar sentiments to their advisors.

The dispute over refugees has also spilled over into other areas within the EU that have nothing to do with asylum. Prior to summer break, the permanent representatives of the EU member states met to discuss the budget for the year 2016. It was supposed to be a routine matter. But the top German diplomat Reinhard Silberberg couldn't resist pestering the eastern Europeans for their lack of solidarity in the refugee issue.

The Poles responded to Juncker's demand of a binding quota system for distributing refugees across the EU with their own concept of "voluntary solidarity," Silberberg noted. What better time to test the principle of "voluntary solidarity" than while preparing the budget, he went on. Several of his colleagues exchanged nervous glances. Was he serious, they wondered? Was Germany really threatening to pay less money to Brussels? Germany, after all, contributes the fattest chunk of the EU budget.

The Big Issues

The debate over refugees is shaking the very foundations of the union. No one knows that better than EU Commission President Juncker. The man was prime minister of Luxembourg for nearly 20 years. He was the head of the Eurogroup during the euro crisis. In recent decades, there hasn't been a single strategic decision made for Europe that didn't bear Juncker's fingerprints in some way. When he took office as head of the EU's executive 10 months ago, he promised to put a political face on Brussels, an apparatus of bureaucrats. Now the crisis has a face -- tens of thousands of faces, in fact. And Juncker's Commission is acting like an agency full of gray-haired public servants who aren't up to the task of the century.

Juncker sought to counter that impression in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday. "This is not the time for ticking off lists or checking whether this or that sectorial initiative has found its way into the State of the Union speech," Juncker intoned in Brussels. "It is time to speak frankly about the big issues facing the European Union. Because our European Union is not in a good state. There is not enough Europe in this union. And there is not enough union in this union."

Juncker on Wednesday proposed the creation of a "permanent relocation mechanism" that would facilitate the moving of refugees away from country like Greece, Italy and Hungary, requiring other EU members to take their share as well. The redistribution is to factor in such criteria as population size, GDP, previous exposure to migrants and unemployment rate. It is, essentially, Juncker's last-ditch bid to save the Dublin Regulation that has so overwhelmed countries like Italy, Greece and Hungary.

One source of discord at the moment is deciding when exactly the EU Commission should have the right to enforce such emergency measures. Juncker is urging maximum flexibility for his office and as little veto rights as possible for the member states. A decision by the Commission, in his opinion, should only be able to be overridden by a qualified majority in the Council.

His intentions still require a green light from the European Parliament, but majority approval is all but guaranteed. The body's president, Martin Schulz, has already made clear that Juncker's plan will take priority. "If we can vote on the banking union in summary proceedings, then it should definitely be possible in the case of refugees," he says.

Rather Ambitious

The second part of Juncker's plan foresees redistributing refugees who are already living in the EU among the member states. After a long debate this summer, EU states agreed to transfer 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, but so far, that target hasn't been met. All the same, Juncker wants to increase the number of refugees to be redistributed -- to 120,000. If it were up to him, Europe's interior ministers would agree to his plan as early as their regularly scheduled meeting in mid-September.

After the disputes of the last few months, that seems rather ambitious. But Juncker is hoping that this time around, unlike at the EU summit in late June, he will be able to count on the support of Chancellor Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. At the time, neither of them were terribly engaged and the summit ended in disaster, with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi erupting into a fit of anger: "Either there is solidarity -- or stop wasting our time!" he exclaimed. Since then, Merkel and Hollande have come to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Last Thursday, they both announced they would advocate a fixed quota for the distribution of refugees.

In order to get the eastern Europeans on board, Juncker wants to push through measures that would keep down the number of applications for asylum. For example, EU accession candidates are to be declared safe countries of origin. That applies to Serbia and Albania, and would mean that asylum applications submitted by citizens of those countries could be quickly rejected. In addition, Juncker wants to accelerate the deportation of asylum-seekers whose applications have been denied. The EU is now looking to speedily negotiate agreements with countries in Africa and elsewhere.

The Juncker plan would allow exceptions. Member states can temporarily suspend participation in the refugee redistribution scheme in the case of "objective reasons such as a natural disaster," But the country must make a compensatory contribution to the EU budget equal to 0.002 percent of its GDP and the opt-out expires after 12 months.

Rising Numbers

Whether that will be enough to convince the skeptics is uncertain. Poland's Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz is hardly in a position to agree to the plan because Polish parliamentary elections are scheduled for Oct. 25. Her party, Platforma Obywatelska, is facing defeat and if she were to campaign on an open policy toward refugees it would decimate her chances of winning.

In the other countries of eastern Europe, acceptance of Juncker's plan is likely to be equally slim. "Quotas don't keep any migrants away," says Slovakia's foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak. "They don't prevent ruthless smugglers  from continuing their dirty dealings in human suffering."

When it comes to refugees, Juncker doesn't lack for goodwill. Even his critics would attest to that. But whether he'll manage to wrest the concessions he is looking for from the member states remains to be seen.

Not least of all because the problem continues to grow. The directorate general of the Commission tasked with coordinating humanitarian aid recently presented a new estimate of the number of Syrian refugees expected by the end of the year. It is expected to rise by 1 to 2 million.

By Sven Becker, Ann-Kathrin Müller, Peter Müller, Maximilian Popp, Jan Puhl, Christoph Schult

Translated from the German by Chris Cottrell