A woman falling into the water with her child as they disembark off a dinghi as refugees and migrants arrive at the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Brussels (AFP) - One year since Germany controversially opened its arms to Syrians fleeing war, the EU has tightened the borders of “Fortress Europe” but remains deeply divided over how to share the refugee burden.
Angela Merkel justified her decision at the time by saying that the biggest migrant crisis since World War II “did not reflect well on Europe”, yet other countries furiously accused her of opening the floodgates.
Since last year when one million migrants entered the continent, the EU has successfully shut the main Balkans route, while a deal with Turkey has massively reduced numbers reaching the Greek islands.
However the bloc’s flagship scheme to share out refugees around the bloc has been an embarrassing failure – meeting just two percent of its target – while deaths in the Mediterranean have actually risen this year.
Yves Pascouau, director of migration at the European Policy Centre think-tank, told AFP that the “idea of cutting migration routes, in terms of realpolitik, has worked effectively.”
But the deal with post-coup-bid Turkey is “fragile” and “we have still not succeeded in overcoming the divisions between member states” on sharing out migrants and on reforming asylum rules.
- ‘Fortress Europe’ -
Europe’s shame over the drownings last year – especially of young Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi in September – forced it into adopting tough steps in late 2015.
Despite reservations in eastern Europe in particular, they agreed on the relocation programme, the Turkey deal and measures to close the main route through the Balkans from Greece.
The stakes have been high as the inflows have threatened to bring down Europe’s cherished passport-free Schengen zone after member states reintroduced border controls.
They also helped spawn the rise of the far-right across the continent, exacerbated by a series of Islamic State attacks, and even played a major role in Britain’s shock vote to leave the EU.
“This new consensus restored to the EU some capacity for common action,” Stefan Lehne, a visting researcher at Carnegie Europe, told AFP.
Since then the EU has agreed to set up a new border and coast guard force, launch talks with African countries to stop migrants and step up efforts to reduce the flow from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy.
The result is that Europe is on track this year to admit a lower number of migrants. By the end of August 272,000 had crossed the Mediterranean in 2016, compared to 354,618 in the same period in 2015, when there was also a major late-year surge.
If the trend continues then it will be legitimate to say that “Fortress Europe has become a reality, at least for a period of time,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe.
- Deeper problems -
But the EU’s efforts may only be a superficial fix for a more fundamental malaise.
Drownings have actually gone up, with 3,165 in 2016 so far compared to 2,656 from January to August 2015.
The Libyan route is surging with 10,000 migrants rescued this week alone, while numbers are up in the Greek islands in recent days.
Lehne said he was unsure the bloc could withstand new migratory pressures from North Africa and Africa.
He added there has been “little progress on the other dimensions of the problem, especially on the crucial question of burden sharing.”
In fact solidarity in Europe over the migrant crisis remains a distant dream despite Merkel’s appeal – adding to the bloc’s disunity in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave.
Since forcing through last September a scheme to relocate 160,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean asylum seekers from frontline states Greece and Italy, EU countries have taken in just 4,500 people.
Germany is still taking the lion’s share with 361,743 asylum appeals this year, compared to just 27 in Slovakia, the country that currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
Hungary and Slovakia have taken their outright opposition to the refugee-sharing plan to the European Court of Justice, while other countries have dragged their feet on implementing it.
Hungary’s populist leader Viktor Orban is holding a referendum October 2 over the EU’s plan, in a sign of open defiance of Brussels.