Germany Takes the Chair - Hope for Refugees or Hardening of the EU's Heart?

With Germany now chairing the European Council, the stories of asylum-seekers coming to Europe may soon change, though whether it will be for the better remains to be seen.

ON July 1st, Germany took up the Presidency of the European Council — the peak deliberating body of the 27 members states of the EU — for a six-month term.

One of its main hopes is to reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) which, operating since 2010, has largely failed to manage to the flow of migrants into Europe in a timely and humane manner.

The current European asylum system no longer works and cannot be fixed through small improvements. We urgently need a real, fresh start,” a spokesman for Germany’s interior ministry recently said.

Realizing that fresh start will prove a challenge, however.

Several other attempts to reform the CEAS have failed in recent years,” reports Christina Goßner at

And with asylum applications rising this year compared to last - the first such increase since the peak of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ in 2015, a more human, accessible system is unlikely to be a priority.

OF course, the official rhetoric is optimistic. Horst Seehofer, German Federal Minister for the Interior, said recently while on a trip to Malta that,

Europe is a community of values. Respecting human dignity and human rights is the most important thing.”

One welcome recently launched initiative has been a public call for applications to join an ‘expert group composed of persons with a migrant background to participate in the development and implementation of migration, asylum and integration policies.’

The initiative importantly acknowledges that ‘currently in the EU, too many migrants face challenges in terms of unemployment, lack of educational and training opportunities, and limited social interaction within their broader communities - challenges which adequate public policies could turn into opportunities.’

Crucially, it also recognizes that ‘involving migrants, asylum applicants and refugees is essential to make the policies more effective and better tailored to needs on the ground."‘

Laudable, though it remains to be seen what outcomes such a process will in fact produce.

Picture: Horst Seehoffer

IN the meantime, the concrete reform priorities outlined by Germany present a much more troubling picture.

They can be summarised as follows:

  • A massive expansion of Frontex, the European border agency.

  • Setting up refugee processing centres outside the EU’s borders.

  • International agreements to better facilitate the return of unsuccessful applicants.

  • Better distribution of migrants across the whole of the EU.

  • Greater co-operation with North African governments to prevent migrants coming in the first place.

Processing Centres

OF these, Seehofer has prioritised the setting up of new processing centres and the returning of unsuccessful applicants as the priorities.

The argument in favour of such processing - to be conducted at Frontex-managed facilities outside the EU’s borders, perhaps in North Africa or Eastern Europe - is that they would ‘cancel out the allure of illegal migration,’ according to German Christian Democratic Union politician Patrick Sensburg. It’s better, he argues,

“…if [asylum processing] happens in a safe way and if people aren’t dependent on people smugglers, having to risk their lives [to reach the EU].”

Faster, external processing, to be made possible by the massive expansion of Frontex, would also work in tandem with the agreement Germany hopes to negotiate with countries of origin to better facilitate the return of unsuccessful applicants.

There is concern, however, about the impact such measures will have on the human rights of applicants. Günter Burkhardt, managing director of human rights organization Pro Asyl, points out that,

Rule of law in detention centres is essentially overridden. It is rare that asylum seekers at the EU’s border have legal representation. It would also be nearly impossible to provide a judicial review of any incorrect rulings.”

Even some German politicians oppose the plans. Lars Castelucci, spokesman for migration policy with the Social Democrat Party, a junior coalition partner in Germany’s governing Grand Coalition, rejects what he sees as plans for ‘watered-down asylum hearings’ on the EU borders.

Asylum application decisions can be ‘life and death,’ adds Wiebke Judith, also from Pro Asyl. According to her,

“[Seehofer’s plans do not] allow [asylum-seekers] to comprehensively explain why they are endagered [nor] allow for these factors to be properly considered.”

Picture: Moria Refugee Camp, Lesvos

Ensuring new arrivals are humanely treated and properly processed appears to be a secondary priority to alleviating the current crises affecting Greece, Italy and Malta, among others. As the countries of first arrival for the vast majority of migrants entering Europe, they are the ones who become responsible for hosting them while claims are processed, according to the terms of the Dublin Accord, the EU’s current refugee framework.

They are also the ones with the catastrophically overcrowded camps, failing public support infrastructure, high-levels of refugee homelessness and poverty, and simmering public resentment.

Greece, in particular, has resorted to summarily deporting migrants to Turkey without process, in blatant violation of European and International Law.

Mandatory Redistribution

The next of Germany’s proposals - a mandatory, formalized distribution mechanism for refugees across Europe - hopest to directly resolve this overcrowding, which is already the source of a humanitarian disaster inside the EU’s borders.

Until now, successfully approved refugees have been resettled from first-arrival countries (Greece, Italy, Malta) on an ad-hoc basis, through individual negotiations, and one-off agreements. Other European countries have been free to accept or reject refugees as they please.

This has long created an unequal distribution, with southern countries forced to take up the lion’s share of the work without anywhere near the resources of their richer northern neighbours.

Of all the reforms Germany is proposing, a redistribution mechanism is the most obviously necessary and morally sensible. And yet, strangely, it is also the one that is likely to face the staunchest of opposition from European nations.

A similar proposal, put forward in 2016, was met with stiff resistance from countries unwilling to take in migrants - most notably, the ‘Visegrád Group'‘ in Eastern Europe - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The governments of all four countries have a clear record of xenophobic rhetoric and policy, clearly expressing desires to have as few migrants arrive as possible.

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, labels refugees as ‘Muslim invaders.’ The Czechian President, Miloš Zeman, agrees, theorising the invasion to be the work of the Muslim Brotherhood. Slovakia’s interior ministry, for its part, has previously said they would only accept Christians.

Picture: Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban

This obstinancy is the main obstacle to passing reform and it’s not something Germany can overcome by force. Even past threats of revoking EU funding to non-complaint states failed to coerce them into being more welcoming.

Instead, Germany is playing the appeaser, musing on the possibility of ‘flexible solidarity,’ whereby states might exchange their obligations to accept migrants for, say, greater funding and personnel for Frontex, or increased support for the migration system in other ways.

But this ‘flexible solidarity’ might be a hard sell for those countries expecting to then pick up a greater tab of hosting responsibility.

Lena Düpont, of Seehofer’s own party, said in response to the idea that,

It must be clear that solidarity is not a one-way street and an electric blanket and two Frontext officials are not an adequate substitute for accepting refugees.”

That means the most persuasive option for ensuring Visegrád support will be to simply significantly reduce the overall numbers of refugees entering Europe in the first place, and therefore the burden, of any kind, that these countries will be expected to bear.

It is at this juncture that the European Union finds itself, in navigating the issue of migration, in fact confronting one of the core challenges of its identity and integrity as an institution.

The fact of the matter that within Seehofer’s ‘Community of Values,’ some values are simply not shared by all members of the community.

‘Respecting human dignity and human rights,’ is not, in fact, ‘the most important thing’ for some member states, who value their own narrow national, racial, cultural or economic interests far more.

The great threat facing the European Union is not an army of invading migrants; it is the hardening of national self-interest at the expense of continental solidarity.

How far Germany is prepared to go to pander to this self-interest at the expense of the already frayed moral integrity of European institutions will be the true measure of failure or success in its reform plans.

But if the final plank of their agenda is anything to go by, that moral integrity is already under threat of disappearing completely.

Co-operation With North African Governments

On the same trip to Malta with Seehofer in early July, the EU Commission’s Vice-President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, outlined the EU’s plans to increase support for the Libyan authorities, already “the largest beneficiary in North Africa of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.”

“In order to strengthen their capacity of intervention to dismantle trafficking networks and conduct rescue operations in their area of responsibility."

What this means in laymen’s terms is that the EU will continue to train, fund and work with the Libyan Coast Guard, among others, to catch migrant boats in the Mediterranean and tow them back to Libya to stop them from reaching Europe.

The Libyan Coast Guard are thought to be comprised basically of state-sanctioned people smugglers themselves, alongside various militias, ex-insurgents and government officials. They have been repeatedly accused of major human rights violations, including unlawful kidnapping, imprisonment, slavery, extortion and torture. Last month, in the course of an EU-assisted tow-back operation, they summarily executed three migrants.

Picture: Libyan Coast Guard

Having already removed all of its own rescue capability from the areas where migrants attempt to cross, the EU now facilitates through aerial surveillance and logistical support an ongoing operation that has been repeatedly deemed in violation of International Law by the UN, European Courts and rights groups.

Increasing their support for the perpetrators of such crimes may reduce the number of refugees reaching Europe’s shores, but it will do nothing to salvage Europe’s tattered ‘values.’

All in all, Germany’s policy proposals suggest that those values are not so universal as their proponents might like, but instead apply only narrowly to those lucky enough to already have recognized status inside the EU.

Whatever happens outside EU borders, even with the direct participation, complicity or knowledge of EU institutions, takes place beyond the sphere of EU moral responsibility.

Germany and other states committed to the idea of the rule of law [are] outsourcing the dirty work outside Europe’s bordersobserves Pro Asyl’s  Gunther Burkhardt.

We need only look to the notorious island network of detention centres operated by the Australian government, or even to Guantanamo Bay, to know that extra-territorial, extra-judicial operations will become dark stains on the moral conscious of the states that carry them out.

Those who propose such a procedure do not want a dignified right of asylum at all, but only to ensure that as few refugees as possible come to the EU,” Green MEP Erik Marquardt, a migration policy spokesperson for the group, says.

It is thought by some that Germany’s political clout will allow it to be the one to finally break the deadlock on the refugee issue and finally reform the CEAS. If that’s the case, the next few months are a rare opportunity.

Whether that opportunity will be used to make good on the values Europe espouses by developing compassionate, humane systems, or whether it will be squandered in the appeasement of the most xenophobic regimes in the union will be for activists, civil society and finally, the politicians, to decide.

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