By Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch and Andreas Ulrich
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plan to find a resolution to the refugee crisis with the help of Turkey is encountering significant resistance. Berlin and Brussels are already considering alternatives, but it could mean the end of border-free travel in large parts of Europe.
Austria’s EU representation in Brussels looks not unlike a fortress. Imposing columns flank the entrance, the façade’s walls are as thick as fortress bulwarks and the structure rises tower-like above the entrance.
The ominous edifice on Avenue de Cortenbergh has been identified as a suitable venue for a closed-door meeting of European leaders ahead of the next EU summit, scheduled for the middle of December. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lövfen and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras are going to be present, as are French President François Hollande, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leaders of the Benalux countries and the Austrian chancellor. So that the rest of the EU member states don’t feel left out, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will also take a seat at the negotiating table.
Once again, the subject of the meeting will be the refugee crisis and the fragile alliance that Merkel is currently relying on to bring the ongoing flow of migrants from the Middle East under control. Together with Turkey and a number of countries in the heart of Europe, Merkel is hoping to seal a complicated deal she recently agreed to with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at the last EU summit.
Essentially, it calls for Europe to provide billions in aid to Turkey in exchange for Ankara doing all it can to prevent Syrian refugees from traveling onward to Europe. Once those conditions have been fulfilled, however, the plan calls for the EU to accept a contingent of Syrian refugees, the size of which would likely be several hundred thousand. The scheme even has a provisional name: Merkel’s Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier recently referred to it in an interview with SPIEGEL as the “Coalition of the Willing.”
Merkel has referred to the plan as an additional “building block” in her migration policy, which itself envisions the distribution of refugees across the EU. Eastern Europe has thus far rejected Merkel’s overtures. But it could be the Continent’s last chance to maintain its regime of borderless travel known as Schengen.
Schengen, which was launched 30 years ago, called for the abandoning of internal European border controls while at the same time strengthening the area’s external borders. But with hundreds of thousands of migrants able to freely travel from Greece through the Balkans and into Central Europe, it is no longer working. The result is that European domestic policy experts, including officials in the Berlin Chancellery, are working on plans that would have been unthinkable just a short time ago: A cancellation of the current Schengen system and the introduction of a much smaller border-free travel area. Such a smaller area would not include Greece, which has proven unable to protect its external borders, nor would it include the countries of Eastern Europe, which refuse to accept refugees.
Should it come to that, Merkel’s oft-cited “welcoming culture” would be obsolete. There would be a new border slicing through the EU — one which would run almost exactly along the path of the Cold War-era Iron Curtain.
It would be a defeat for Europe, but it is nevertheless a step Merkel would be willing to take absent any other way to save her chancellorship. In a recent meeting with Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, her powerful conservative partner from the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) who has been extremely critical of her asylum policies, Merkel conceded for the first time that closing the borders could be the “Ultima Ratio,” the method of last resort, to stop the inflow of refugees.
A mini-Schengen would at least ensure border-free travel between Germany and many of its neighbors — a situation Merkel finds far preferable to a national solution. Still, “the end of Schengen would mean the failure of an entire generation of politicians,” Manfred Weber, a member of Seehofer’s CSU and floor leader of the center-right European People’s Party in European Parliament, warns, referring to years of efforts to implement the complicated agreement.
But Merkel has become so annoyed with her counterparts in Eastern Europe that she has become more open to the possibility of reintroducing border controls. A fair refugee distribution system, she said in German parliament two weeks ago, “isn’t some triviality, rather it is the question as to whether the Schengen area can be maintained.” In Budapest and Warsaw, her words were understood as she meant them: as a threat.
Finding a Solution
Indeed, the German chancellor has largely written off the Eastern Europeans when it comes to finding a solution to the refugee crisis. She only told very few EU leaders about her plan to take contingents of refugees from Turkey, first and foremost French President Hollande and Austrian Chancellor Werner Feymann. “If some countries in Europe block every solution to the refugee crisis, then it makes sense to only work together with those who show good will,” says European Parliament President Martin Schulz. “European contracts expressly allow for that.”
Merkel, of course, hopes that her deal with Turkey will be a cooperative one. Should the number of refugees reaching Europe steadily decline, she envisions Europe taking migrants directly from Turkey. Merkel is convinced that the country needs an outlet, particularly if it begins preventing migrants from continuing on to Europe even as the inflow of Syrians into Turkey continues unabated.
The plan includes a provision for regular reviews — every quarter for example — of the situation. Those checks would then be used to determine how many refugees should be distributed to which European countries. “The plan will only be implemented once Turkey exerts great effort to combat illegal migration and migrant smuggling networks and once the number of illegal entries into the EU is drastically reduced,” says EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who drafted the deal with Turkey.
Experts with the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR are to assist Europe in identifying those refugees who are most in need of assistance. Those who require medical care or who are suffering from war-related trauma would have greater chances to come to Europe and would not be forced to place their fates in the hands of smugglers to get there. Should the plan work in Turkey, it could be expanded to Jordan and Lebanon, says Hahn. In those countries, he says, “the refugee situation is perhaps even more difficult.”
Turning Back the Clock
There isn’t much time left to implement the plan. Even as Europe is desperately trying to secure its external borders with the help of Turkey, border controls are being reintroduced in the heart of the Continent. Several EU member states have temporarily re-established border checks in response to the refugee crisis, including Slovenia, Germany, Austria and, most recently, Sweden in mid-November.
Should a “mini-Schengen” become reality, initial members would include Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden.
The Netherlands, which takes over the rotating EU presidency in January, is particularly eager to push forward a smaller version of the border-free travel regime. Should the Turkey plan not be successful, Europe would have to “work together in smaller groups,” Dutch Finance Minister and Euro Group head Jeroen Dijsselbloem recently told the German business daily Handelsblatt. Even if, as Dijsselbloem said, such a scenario is a “without a doubt a suboptimal solution” — and would turn back the European clock to the 1980s.
The Paris attacks have intensified the debate even further. France’s government in particular has pointed out that some of the attackers traveled to Europe via Greece along the refugee trail. In a letter sent to members of the European Parliament last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls requested that the EU’s external borders be strengthened, adding that doing so is “essential for the protection of the Schengen zone, that important achievement that is in fact under threat today.”
Even Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn is willing to take a new look at Schengen. A passionate supporter of open borders, he sent a letter last week to European interior ministers proposing various reforms to the Schengen zone. Luxembourg is the current holder of the EU presidency.
One idea is for the EU to have the ability to “recommend to one or several countries” that they “reestablish border controls along their interior border,” if necessitated by the situation on the external border. The thinking applies to situations like the one currently unfolding along the West Balkan refugee route. If, for example, Greece is unable to effectively control the EU external border, then the task would be assumed by the next Schengen country in line — in this case Slovenia.
It’s the kind of scenario Merkel is hoping to avert if at all possible. So far, though, her planned “coalition of the willing” has been little more than wishful thinking.
‘Let Us Not Be Naïve’
One problem is that there are far fewer of “the willing” than Merkel had hoped. Against the headwinds of domestic opposition, many EU leaders are unable to accept more refugees. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, for example, made clear at a meeting in Brussels two weeks ago that he had little interest in establishing quotas for the number of refugees his country would accept. Sweden, which is absorbing more migrants per capita than any other EU country, is currently looking to relocate the refugees it currently has rather than opening its doors to more. EU Council President Donald Tusk is also pushing Merkel to shift course. “Let us not be naïve,” he said in November, protecting Europe’s external borders is not a task that can simply be left up to Turkey.
Greece, on the other hand, has been invited to Merkel’s closed-door meeting in Brussels largely because it is the starting point for so many of the problems in the first place. At the initial reception center for refugees on Lesbos, for example, officials don’t even have reliable access to the Internet.
It’s no wonder that Commission President Juncker wants to present plans at the meeting for joint European border patrols. Under discussion are rapid-deployment forces that can quickly be put in place at Europe’s periphery. Such a plan, though, would represent a significant infringement on member-state sovereignty.
Merkel’s plan, too, is problematic. It will be difficult for the German chancellor to explain how she is hoping to implement her contingent plan when the EU hasn’t even succeeded yet in redistributing 160,000 refugees currently residing in Italy and Greece. So far, only around 200 refugees have been resettled, a European disgrace. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Asselborn warns: “We should first implement what we have already agreed to” before we commit to doing more.
More than anything, though, Merkel’s plan takes the pressure off Eastern European countries. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said all along that the refugees were a German problem. Slovakia, for its part, filed suit last week at the European Court of Justice against the distribution of refugees agreed to by the European Council in September. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania were outvoted by the other member states in the decision to redistribute the asylum-seekers in Italy and Greece.
‘People Will Long for Schengen’
But the Plan B of setting up a “mini-Schengen,” is packed with pitfalls. Economically strong countries like Germany, especially, are likely to suffer should long waiting times or traffic jams develop at border crossings. “If border patrols are reintroduced, it will be very expensive,” says veteran CDU foreign policy expert Elmar Brok. “Both the business community and normal people will long for Schengen.”
Nor will a return to an extensive border control regiment be easy to implement. Officials with Germany’s federal police say they are fully capable of sealing the country’s borders, but the move could have grave consequences, as a group of experts with the Federal Police, the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Germany’s domestic intelligence agency) and the BND foreign intelligence service recently concluded. The committee mulled scenarios of what might play out if, for example, Serbia or Macedonia were to seal their borders.
The experts believe it conceivable that refugees would then shift direction to neighboring countries like Albania or Croatia instead, or even take the longer route through Bulgaria and Romania. If Germany were to close its borders, they warn, it could lead to a backup of refugees across Austria and all the way down the Western Balkans. Some officials in the German government fear this could lead to tensions in the countries, even raising the possibility of armed hostilities.
In the expert analysis, this possibility is discussed under a brief but telling section heading: Storming of the Border.