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New EU Provisional Migration Solutions Strain Relations in the Western Balkans, Central Europe

By Maria-Antoaneta Neag in Brussels

While EU demographic trends and statistics indicate that the bloc would benefit economically and socially from migration, member states have not properly implemented existing agreements, leaving Europe somewhat unprepared for the current refugee crisis.

In the Balkans, the refugee crisis has led to some amount of chaos, violence, and trade and diplomatic tensions between neighboring states- some of which are in the EU, others of which are not. However, the latest emergency EU conference in Brussels has tried to reach a new understanding of the migrant crisis, discuss its implications and agree upon the EU’s envisaged way forward.

The Latest EU Developments: the September 22-23 Meetings

 Before the summer, EU leaders reached an agreement on a temporary relocation mechanism from Greece and Italy across EU Member States for 40,000 persons in clear need of international protection, and 20,000 displaced persons, over the next two years.

Over the summer, Greece was again faced with mass arrivals of migrants along its shores. Drowned victims and shipwrecks made the front pages of newspapers, leading to more calls on the EU to provide timely and effective measures to tackle this crisis.

After consulting the European Parliament in a speedy procedure, the September 22 Justice and Home Affairs Council reached agreement on an exceptional compulsory relocation mechanism applying to 120.000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary. Then, the September 23 Informal Extraordinary Summit brought EU leaders together to decide on the specific operational measures to be taken in order to cope with the refugee crisis. These measures are to be formally adopted at the mid-October Summit.

Some Member States claim they have been left out of the negotiations, because of their stance against compulsory quotas (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania).

At the informal meeting of the European Council, heads of state and government discussed the need for a more comprehensive European migration policy. Some priorities were sketched out, while other proposals came from the European Commission in the framework of implementation package of the European Agenda on Migration.

EU Special Measures Chosen for Handling the Crisis

These measures include: assistance to frontline Member States (financial and establishment of hotspots); implementation of decisions on resettlement, return and readmission; more diplomatic efforts towards solving the crisis in Syria and Libya; increased financing for FRONTEX; financial assistance to Turkey, the Western Balkans, Syria’s neighbouring countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Food Programme; strengthening the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI); enabling the EU Civil protection mechanism available for Member States facing crisis situations; emergency funding (100 million euros addition to the 2015 budget), the establishment of a trust fund for Africa and so on.

However, while these solutions may seem proactive, politically, the situation remains tense in Europe. Slovakia threatened to sue the EU over compulsory migrant quotas. In the European Parliament, there are talks of raising Article 7 of the EU Treaty (TEU) against Hungary, which has been accused of poorly handling the refugees and passing negative legislation to allow army deployment and the use of non-lethal weapons – rubber bullets and tear gas grenades – against migrants.

This is significant because, before now, Article 7 (also called ‘the nuclear bomb’) has never been invoked. It states that serious breaches to the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights by a Member State can result in a suspension or loss of voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers.

 Why Is This Crisis Occurring?

According to the IOM, the European Union is the most popular destination in the world for asylum seekers. Refugees face a big problem regarding reaching and submitting their claim within the European Union, however, because there are no information or reception centers in third countries.

Since the legal avenues for entering the EU are limited, and since EU states’ embassies are closed in most conflict areas, refugees and migrants are trying to enter the EU incognito or with the help of smugglers. Events such as the Arab Spring and the subsequent turmoil and the civil wars in the Middle East, have of course made many people leave their home countries in search of asylum in Europe.

At the same time, during this period Greece was facing its own political and economic crisis, coming at one point in the summer to the brink of state collapse. In this context, it did not respect its commitments regarding applying asylum rules or protecting EU’s external borders, which became a security liability.

There are several ways to enter the European Union. In recent years, it was the Central Mediterranean route that led to the humanitarian crisis and difficult situation for countries such as Italy and Malta. Since 2014, the Eastern Mediterranean route (by sea from Turkey to Greece, Cyprus and Italy) and Western Balkan route have become predominant for Middle Eastern and African migrants.

The crisis already started years back, with shipwrecks, ghost ships and dead bodies arriving at Europe’s gate. But it reached a new peak this summer with migrants or asylum seekers starting to arrive on the Greek coast in large and organized waves. From there they crossed to Macedonia, which in late August 2015 was forced to declare a state of emergency due to the migrant crisis. While some criticized this, local officials believe it was necessary as until that point no one in Brussels seemed to be paying attention to the severity of the situation.

At the same time, the refugees have continued moving to Serbia with the aim of crossing to Hungary and from there to Austria, with final destination Germany or further points north. Germany and Sweden have a high acceptance rate of about 70% of all asylum applications granted in the 28 EU Member States.

On the opposite side, in Greece – which is in any case economically undesirable for migrants – fewer than 1% of asylum claims are accepted, de-motivating most refugees from even trying to apply for asylum there. This is also a consequence of the unfortunate uneven implementation of the Common European Asylum System establishing common standards for the reception, identification and claim processing.

Fortress Hungary: the EU’s Border Protector

 The case of Hungary is relevant in the context of the current crisis. Long foreseeing these migration waves through the Western Balkans, Hungary has built a fence along its border with Serbia. However, since late August 2015 migrants have started trying to cross into Hungary through barbed-wire fence.

In mid-September, the Hungarian authorities took measures to secure the border. They even temporarily shut down completely their border with Serbia in order to control the migrant inflows. Police use of tear gas and water cannons alarmed some in the international community and caused media excitement. Among others, the UN High Commissioner, UNHCH and Serbian Prime Minister Vucic criticized Hungarian authorities’ methods and called for a more subtle way of dealing with refugees in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

International human rights organisations have criticized Hungarian police for beating journalists covering migration and even breaking their gear and forcing them to delete footage. On the other hand, Hungarian police claim migrants are rude, sometimes aggressive and use children as “human shields.” In the meanwhile, Hungary criminalized undocumented migrants (imprisonment and expulsion of people who cross the Hungarian border irregularly) and even apprehended the first ‘criminals’. Furthermore it declared a state of emergency, temporary closing some borders, allegedly disregarding Schengen rules.

A Shift in Routes: from the Serbian-Hungarian Border to Croatia

After being stuck at the Serbian-Hungarian borders, most of the migrants took dirt roads and the highway crossing to the nearest alternate EU border, leading to Croatian territory. The authorities there were prepared to receive up to 5,000 migrants in the following two weeks and seemed at the beginning to be handling the situation smoothly. Refugees first registered at Tovarnik and were taken to Zagreb for registration in a special train. Tents were raised to shelter migrants. The UN, Red Cross and Croatian authorities were on the ground but the situation slowly worsened due to the high influx of people crossing on Croatian soil. The Croats (like the Austrians after them) were apparently not as patient or prepared in dealing with refugees as Serbia and Macedonia had been.

How a Refugee Crisis Can Spark Tensions from a Not-So-Distant War

After World War II and the 1990s wars in the Western Balkans, the current crisis could be considered Europe’s biggest refugee crisis in the last 70 years.

When Hungary closed its border with Serbia, leaving a significant number of migrants stuck on the Western Balkan land route, it in turn brought back old animosities between two former Balkan wartime adversaries: Croatia has closed seven of its eight road border crossings with Serbia following the huge influx of migrants. After a few thousand in the first day, the influx reached approximately 50,000 migrants – mostly Syrian refugees – who have entered Croatia from mid- to end-September, after being pushed back from Hungary.

Croatia blamed Serbia of allegedly making a deal with Hungary to reroute the Middle Eastern migrants by organising buses from Serbia to the Croatian border and for blocking its trucks along the way. A trade war was last week’s story, and harsh dialogue between the two authorities took place. Serbia was faced with a blockade of goods not being allowed to enter Croatia. It thus introduced a ban on imports and on transport vehicles with Croatian license plates. Caught up in all this have been truckers from Macedonia and other places, forced to sit for days on the Croatian border, incurring considerable time and financial losses as they cannot reach their destinations in the Balkans.

The trade blockade (which has cost both Serbia and Croatia around 1 million euros each) has proved to have a bigger impact on Croatia who exports 40% more to Serbia than it imports. The situation is currently stabilizing and traffic has resumed through the major Serbia-Croatia border crossing (Bajakovo), but thousands of migrants are still in Serbia and Croatia, walking and sleeping between Sid and Tovarnik, awaiting the continuation of their journey.

From Croatia, about 2,500 migrants reached Slovenia, which temporarily suspended rail connections with Croatia. Like the Hungarian police, Slovenian police also used at a certain point tear gas and water cannons to control and ease the flows. From Slovenia, migrants continued into Austria by taxi, buses, train and on foot.
At the same time, from Hungary, Austria saw more than 10,000 migrants entering the country (mostly through the Nickelsdorf border town) over 10 days. Special trains were set in motion to carry up to 500 migrants each across the border into Germany (Freilassing).

Meetings between Croatia, Slovenian and Austrian ministers took place in an attempt to tackle the problem of migrants actually heading northwest. But the large numbers of migrants led to border closures and temporarily suspended train traffic instead of a smoother transit.

Central Eastern Europe

Considering themselves as mostly transit countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia proposed a corridor for migrants to safely pass towards Germany- which, after all, had been so vocal in inviting migrants. Meanwhile, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban offered his plan to Berlin, citing four proposals: increasing Member States’ contributions by 1% in order to have additional funding for coping with this crisis; separating the refugees from economic migrants before their entrance into the EU; establishing special partnerships with the main players in the region, namely Turkey and Russia; and envisaging global quotas rather than compulsory EU quotas.

Hungary claims their border fence has helped it to decrease the number of illegal arrivals into the country, and are building new fences along their borders with Romania and Croatia, sparkling criticism from these neighbours, including Serbia, which is accused of partnership with Hungary.

Concerns about the So-Called ‘Refugees’

EU leaders as well as the public are confronted with controversies over terminology. How can they differentiate between economic migrants and refugees, and what will this mean for policy? Who is a refugee and who is entitled to what kind of benefits?

Newer Member States criticize the idea of direct labor market integration since, for Romania and Bulgaria it took seven years to be able to legally gain access to the EU labour market. These countries see it as hypocritical of ‘Old Europe’ to therefore want to expedite the arrival of people who are not even from the EU.

Sceptics also worry about a possible ISIS infiltration and the consequences of this for EU security. Many are concerned that the so-called ‘refugees’ seem somewhat more well-off than would fit the description of the typical war refugee: as reported in August, many have financial resources, smart phones, and some travel in taxis the distances between the countries.

Further, other reports have contended that rather than express gratitude, some ‘refugees’ have behaved rudely, vandalized property, and thrown away sandwiches and clothes offered by volunteers. Accusations of rape within migrant camps have been made, with Syrian women being at danger from their own fellow travelers.

 Will Schengen Survive?

In principle, Schengen was designed to allow borderless transit through its member states. The border crossings from the Schengen territory were abolished, allowing speedy travel that benefited both individual travellers and consumers, by cutting transit times and delays. It can be argued that this has been one of the EU’s more successful common initiatives.

The migrant crisis, however, is challenging the very principles on which it stands. This has led to specific actions. In an attempt to discourage migrants, Hungary temporarily set up a razor wire barrier near its border with Slovenia (Tornyiszentmiklos), which introduced passport controls at its border with Hungary, while Austria enhanced its check-points at the border with Slovenia. Most sensationally, after announcing it was ready and willing to take in migrants, Germany re-introduced border controls, Austria and Slovakia followed this line thus threatening the very principles of the Schengen agreement.

How Will the EU Survive this Crisis?

More than 500,000 people have arrived in the EU since 1 January 2015 which led to the current refugee crisis. To exit this situation, EU leaders agreed in principle that a fixed number of asylum seekers should be accepted within the EU, the rest being bound to be sent to a safe country or a partner country from their region.

Furthermore, stricter EU asylum rules should be applied. As only 5 Member States are correctly applying the EU rules on asylum, by the end of September, the European Commission already started 40 infringement procedures against Member States not implementing EU common rules. The EU will also allocate funding to tackle this crisis while also taking into account the external dimension of migration and focus on development policy, humanitarian aid coupled with diplomatic initiatives.

However, while the recent emergency meetings indicate that the EU is finally, if belatedly taking the issue seriously, it is still far from clear whether its proposed solutions – and internal punitive measures – will lead to a better resolution, or perhaps cause further internal divisions.