EU migration

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Spring is coming and Italian politicians know that probably spells trouble. With the improved weather come the migrant boats to Italy’s southern shores and one fiendishly difficult political problem.

Attention in Brussels is still on the migrant flow across the Aegean and the controversial deal with Turkey to stop it. The first so-called “returns” of migrants to Turkey started on Monday, but the first batch included no asylum seekers and the jury is still out on whether the plan is legal, workable or effective.

Over in Rome, however, the concern is more whether the EU can repeat its Turkey trick elsewhere. Angelino Alfano, Italy’s veteran interior minister, wants Brussels to strike similar returns deals with African countries, the source of most migrants reaching Italy. “Europe was able to find the resources when it was urgent — I am referring to Turkey,” he told the FT. “It’s a matter of political leadership.” Read more

Christian Oliver

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Migrants on a rubber raft arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos early Sunday morning

Last week’s highly-touted agreement to deport migrants from Greece to Turkey went into force yesterday, which means we will soon know the answer to the most critical question now facing the EU: Have leaders burned massive political, legal and moral capital striking a deal with Turkey that will never work?

The most immediate fear is that the Greek authorities are far from ready for the Herculean task of shipping thousands of people from the Aegean islands. Then, there is the concern that desperate migrants (and the people smugglers) will probably quickly switch to even more perilous entry points into the EU, like via war-torn Libya and across the Mediterranean into Italy.

EU officials are under no illusions. Most leaders at Friday’s Brussels summit that agreed the deal were sombre rather than triumphant. Above all, there was a tacit acknowledgment that, even by its own standards, the EU had brazenly pushed the law to the very limits. Human rights groups are bound to challenge the EU’s actions over the coming weeks and months. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Tusk, right, arrives in Nicosia for meetings with the Cypriot president earlier this week

At a meeting of all 28 ambassadors to the EU late yesterday, aides to Donald Tusk, the European Council president, circulated a new three-page draft of a migration deal with Turkey that will serve as the basis of two days of summit talks aimed at securing an agreement with Ankara by Friday.

We got our hands on the draft and have posted it here. Much of the text reflects the emerging consensus of European officials that has emerged over the last week, be it on the legality of the mass return policy of migrants from Greece to Turkey or on the sticky issue of getting Cyprus to sign onto any pact.

Because many of the issues are couched in opaque diplomatese, Brussels Blog hereby offers an annotated version of the key parts of the text:

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Duncan Robinson

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Richard Nixon, left, with British prime minister Harold Wilson at Downing Street in 1969

Frost: “So in a sense what you’re saying is that there are certain situations…where the president can decide that it’s in the best interest of the nation or something and do something illegal?”

Nixon: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

When it comes to the refugee crisis, Nixonian thinking appears to have taken over the EU’s institutions. Since the outline of a controversial deal with Turkey emerged last Monday, officials have repeated the mantra: whatever the EU does, it will be legal – and in the best interests of Europe. But doubts, both legal and practical, still remain.

On Wednesday, Frans Timmermans, the orotund first vice president of the European Commission, spelled out how the EU will try to return migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey without trampling on EU and international law. He said all asylum seekers on Greek islands would be subject to a proper hearing to determine whether their application is admissible – as is required in the Geneva Convention. This principle is also contained in a draft EU-Turkey agreement distributed to national capitals last night by Donald Tusk, who will host a two-day summit to hammer out the refugee deal starting today.

But for this to happen, Greece’s asylum system needs to be bulked up to cope with 10,000 arrivals per week. Extra judges and translators will be flown onto its islands, while reception facilities must be transformed into something resembling detention centres. In short, the system needs to be transformed from a dysfunctional mess labelled “degrading” by the European Court of Human Rights into the bulwark of the EU’s response to the refugee crisis. If the Greeks fail, and the system degenerates into a network of kangaroo courts rubber stamping decisions, then Europe’s actual courts – in either Strasbourg (European Court of Human Rights) or Luxembourg (European Court of Justice) – would likely strike the deal down. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Anastasiades, right, chats with Britain's David Cameron at the EU refugee summit last week.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president who has been attempting to broker a deal to stop the influx of refugees into the EU, has flown to Nicosia for a meeting this morning with Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades. For a man who spent the week before the last EU migration summit travelling to seven different capitals in four days, the fact that Mr Tusk is making Cyprus his only stop ahead of the next two-day gathering beginning Thursday is telling: the small island nation may prove the most difficult needle to thread in Brussels’ nascent deal with Turkey to take back thousands of migrants now washing ashore in Greece. [UPDATE: Mr Tusk has tacked on an evening trip to Ankara at the last minute.]

Cyprus has long been one of the biggest complicating factors in EU-Turkey relations, so objections from Nicosia to the demands being made by Ankara– another €3bn in aid, a visa-free travel scheme, opening of new “chapters” in EU membership talks – may have been expected. But the small group of EU leaders who brokered last week’s deal, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, seemed to have forgotten that Cypriot objections this time around are far more consequential: the country is in the middle of delicate talks that diplomats believe are the best (and perhaps last) chance to reunify an island divided since Turkey invaded and held its northern half in 1974. For Mr Anastasiades, making concessions to Ankara now without any compensation would not only cost him politically at home, but could wreck reunification talks altogether since the Greek Cypriot community he leads would likely abandon him. Like all other 27 EU heads of state, Mr Anastasiades can, on his own, veto the Turkey deal. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Jean-Claude Juncker, far right, at a press conference after the EU summit with Turkey

After a 12-hour meeting between the EU and Turkey, a tired-looking Jean Claude Juncker took to the stage after 1am on Tuesday morning and boldly declared that a plan to send back migrants from Greek islands to Turkey was legal.

The European Commission president swiftly tried to bog the even more tired-looking press corps down in legalese. With impressively few glances at his notes, Mr Juncker regurgitated:

Article 33 and 38 of the asylum procedure directive clearly open the way for a solution of this kind. Because article 33, paragraph 2, letter C indicates that a country can refuse to consider a claim if a non-EU country is considered as a safe third country.

But is this true? Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Tusk stops in Athens Thursday morning to meet with Greece's Alexis Tsipras en route to Ankara

If it’s Thursday, it must be Ankara.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is halfway through a four-day, six-country tour ahead of Monday’s emergency EU summit on refugees that culminates in Turkey. He will meet prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu today in Ankara and cool his heels most of tomorrow morning awaiting an afternoon meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. On almost every stop on his way to Turkey, Mr Tusk has signalled he still isn’t happy with the country’s efforts to stem the migrant flow despite the much-debated bilateral deal in which Ankara was supposed to crack down on migration in exchange for €3bn in EU aid. Tusk has promised to raise the issue with the Turks.

New numbers released by the UN’s refugee agency show that daily arrivals in Greece peaked at more than 3,600 last week, which is not much lower than it has been for the last two months. Overall numbers for February were slightly below January, but EU officials have been reluctant to concede on any Turkish requests – like a new programme to resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey into Europe – unless those numbers fall more significantly. Read more

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One side-effect of “crisis Europe” has been a surplus of bombastic political rhetoric. In a crowded field Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, stood out when likening the EU to the fall of the Roman Empire. Hungary’s Viktor Orban touched a nerve with his “no road back from a multicultural Europe” speech, which in turn built on his warning over the bloc “staggering towards moonstruck ruin”. And of course Fico is FicoRead more

Britain's David Cameron addresses the press on his way into the EU summit on Thursday evening

David Cameron is in a hole. His flagship policy to curb EU migration – a four-year ban on benefits for migrant workers – looks doomed. When it was announced more than a year ago, Cameron was told it violated a fundamental EU principle of non-discrimination. If the EU stands for anything, it is ensuring EU workers don’t pay a higher effective tax rate on the basis of their passport.

This was flagged up by British officials at the time. Cameron nevertheless ploughed on. While Downing Street were drafting the Conservative party election manifesto, aides suggested leaving out the four-year idea. He ploughed on. When Mr Cameron preparing a letter to other EU leaders on his reform demands, he was told by Whitehall and Brussels the four-year ban was all but impossible and should be dropped. He ploughed on.

The final reckoning may come this evening. Cameron makes a make-or-break pitch for the idea. Having spent far too long trying to understand how the problem will be fixed, it may also be my last opportunity to inflict a benefit reform listicle on Brussels Blog readers.

So while there is still time: behold the nine ways Cameron’s four-year benefits saga may end.

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Duncan Robinson

Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, during a visit to Brussels to discuss the crisis this month

When the European Commission this month unveiled its scheme to share out 120,000 refugees, on top of the 40,000 agreed in July, it added a new beneficiary country to the programme: Hungary. But unlike the other two targeted in the scheme as EU front-line countries, Greece and Italy, Hungary didn’t want to be included, despite being subject to a massive influx from its border with Serbia.

The dispute has become one of the primary reasons agreeing the scheme has taken so long. Originally, the plan said that 54,000 refugees would be sent from Hungary to other member states. The remaining 66,000 would come from Italy (16,000) and Greece (50,000).

Commission officials admitted Hungary’s inclusion was a bit of political jujitsu. For months, Hungary’s combative prime minister, Viktor Orban, argued his country was being overrun with people trying to enter Germany. The relocation scheme provided the opportunity for Budapest to offload 54,000, quiet Brussels’ loudest critic, and peel off Hungary from the hardening anti-relocation alliance of Visegrad countries.

The publicly-stated reason Orban doesn’t want to participate is a matter of principle: Budapest does not see itself as a front-line state. Nearly everyone arriving in Hungary has come through Greece first and Budapest argues that, if Greece was doing its job, Hungary would not be facing a problem. “The elephant in the room is Greece,” insists one top Hungarian official.

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Duncan Robinson

For the second weekend in a row, ambassadors from across the EU are spending their Sunday behind closed doors, trying to reach a deal on sharing out 120,000 refugees across bloc for the crunch interior ministers’ meeting on Tuesday, ahead of a make-or-break migration summit on Wednesday.

At the heart of the plan, which has become a flagship policy for the Juncker commission, is the “distribution key”.

Member states would take a number of refugees based on how big they are, how rich they are, how many asylum seekers they already have, and the country’s unemployment rate. Or as the Commission put it:

Got that? Good.

But now, it seems, the distribution key is dead – for this scheme, at least. The latest version of the draft agreement seen by Brussels Blog has all mention of distribution keys taken out. Even the percentage breakdown for each member state has been removed.

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Peter Spiegel

Hungary's interior minister, Sandor Pinter, arrives at the migration council Monday afternoon

The EU’s interior ministers started their highly-anticipated meeting to agree next steps in Europe’s burgeoning migrant crisis with a newly drafted communiqué, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here.

As expected, the new draft would have EU members agreeing to accept 120,000 more refugees and relocate them around the bloc so that none of the front-line countries are overburdened – but rejects the European Commission’s demand that such a relocation system be mandatory, with set quotas for each country.

But what wasn’t expected is a significant watering down of the language that commits ministers to implement that plan. Last night, a draft of the communiqué included this sentence on the need to quickly adopt the relocation scheme:

Work will be carried out as a matter of priority on the preparation of a formal decision to implement this commitment.

In the new draft, that sentence has a new clause that includes a whole lot of caveats:

Work will be carried out as a matter of priority on the preparation of a formal decision to implement this commitment, with due regard to the flexibility that could be needed by Member States in the implementation of the decision, in particular to accommodate unforeseen developments.

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Duncan Robinson

A mother holds her child outside a migration centre in Rome last week

Brussels may be obsessed with the prospect of Grexit, and much of the focus of the two-day EU summit that starts on Thursday may be Brexit. But the issue worrying many EU diplomats going into the summit is something else entirely: migration.

For the first time, a draft conclusions sent around to national capitals on Monday (we have posted a copy here) includes language on how leaders will deal with the massive influx of refugees from North Africa. If you’ll recall, an emergency summit held in April explicitly left out any targets for numbers of refugees washing up on Italian and Greek shores that would be “relocated” in other EU countries.

Then the European Commission decided it would propose 40,000 of those refugees would be relocated and even came up with European schemes for relocation and resettlement (pdf) that divvied up how many each country would accept. National capitals were not too pleased with that.

The European Commission seems relatively happy with the new draft communiqué. The figures — 40,000 people, over two years — are still there. Likewise, the call for “rapid adoption” — perhaps at a meeting next month — of their migration proposals is stronger than some within the Berlaymont had feared.

But the conclusions do not mention the word “mandatory”, which has raised red flags since many fear that without resettlement quotas, countries will be hard pressed to avoid political pressure to keep refugees out. But it should be noted that the original proposals didn’t mention the word “mandatory”, either. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Migrants arrive in the Sicilian port of Messina after a rescue operation at sea earlier this week

When EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday for a hastily-called summit to address the rash of migrant drownings in the Mediterranean, the most concrete “deliverable” is likely to be a pledge to “at least” double resources to the bloc’s two maritime operations along Europe’s southern coast.

According to a draft communiqué sent to national capitals late Wednesday, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here, the commitment to double the financial resources will go through 2016. But the text is a bit more unclear on what exactly the Triton and Poseidon missions’ mandate will be.

The draft says the new cash would allow the patrols to “increase the search and rescue possibilities within the mandate” of Frontex, the EU’s border guard agency. But diplomats say the issue of whether to grant Frontex an explicit search-and-rescue mission, like the now-disbanded Mare Nostrum patrols, remains off the table. A senior EU official said Frontex remains a border-control agency, and that will not be changed. Read more

James Fontanella-Khan

David Cameron

David Cameron, UK prime minister, has been loudly campaigning for a crackdown on EU migration in an effort to curb the influx of workers from poorer member states to Britain.

But on Monday, the Tory-led government tried to block key amendments to EU legislation that seeks to do exactly that: reduce the inflow of workers from central and eastern Europe to wealthier member states.The so-called “posting of workers directive” was agreed by member states in 1996 to make it easier for EU workers to carry out work outside of their home country for a limited period of time.

But a number of countries led by France, Germany and Belgium have over the years complained that the directive was being used inappropriately to undercut local labour rules in richer countries. Essentially, workers from poorer countries offered their services at below market prices without asking for any social security contributions. Read more