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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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