Migrant crisis: EU looking further afield for solution
November’s Malta summit seen as chance for talks with Africa on root causes of migration
Members of the German Bundeswehr army prepare beds and tents for refugees inside a hangar of the former airport Tempelhof in Berlin. Photograph: Gregor Fischer/AFP/Getty Images
As Ireland prepares to receive refugees under the EU relocation and resettlement programme in the coming months, towns and cities across Europe are grappling with the arrival of hundreds of refugees on a daily basis.
In Germany, Tempelhof airport, the disused airfield built by the Nazis in the 1930s, is being used to house 1,000 refugees in the coming weeks, with the first 300 moving into tents with bunk beds last weekend. Throughout Germany, disused offices and schools are being deployed as authorities look for places to house refugees before winter descends.
The mayor of Berlin says 700 refugees are arriving in the capital each day, although Bavaria in the south of the country is continuing to receive the majority of migrants reaching Germany.
Further north in the Netherlands, where authorities are favouring the creation of small refugee centres rather than large-scale sites to house the estimated 60,000 refugees arriving to the country this year, a public meeting in the town of Harlingen to discuss crisis accommodation was postponed on Tuesday amid fears members of a far-right political party would attend. In Austria on Tuesday, firefighters rescued two migrants from the Braunau river who had been trying to reach Germany by swimming the river that borders Austria.
Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the first World War has not only created enormous practical challenges for European authorities – it is also damaging relations between member states.
Austria’s announcement on Wednesday that it may build a fence on its border with Slovenia has sparked alarm in Brussels amid fears that the EU’s border-free travel zone could be under threat. The introduction of temporary border controls by Germany and Austria in September was permitted as part of a “temporary” measure allowed by the EU treaties. The erection of borders between Schengen members is another matter entirely.
Tensions between Germany and Austria are also festering, with German interior minister Thomas de Maizière describing Austria’s handling of the migration crisis as “out of order” as he accused Austrian authorities of driving refugees to the German border and leaving them there under darkness.
Last Sunday’s mini-summit went some way towards offering some short-term practical solutions to the crisis. Four hundred police officers are being sent to Slovenia, which has already deployed the army to help with border control.
Capacity at reception centres in frontline countries is to be increased by 100,000, with 50,000 earmarked for Greece.
As well as hardening its stance on border control and deportation, the EU is looking further afield to find a long- term solution to the refugee crisis. Next month’s Valletta summit in Malta, at which EU leaders will meet heads of African states, is being billed as a key opportunity to further co-operation between Europe and Africa on the root causes of migration. The G20 summit in Turkey the following week is also likely to be dominated by the war in Syria and the mammoth refugee crisis it has spawned.
Here, the role of Russia will be of key concern. The commencement of Russian air strikes four weeks ago has succeeded in tilting the dynamics of the Syrian civil war, as the Assad regime has launched successful offensives in the Hama and Aleppo regions of the country.
European Council president Donald Tusk warns that up to 100,000 “new” refugees have already fled the region since the Russian attacks started. There are concerns that this number could reach 350,000 if the situation deteriorates further.
While Britain, France and Germany may attempt to forge a common position on Syria at next month’s G20, divisions remain within the European Union on Russia. Although Britain and particularly France are strongly opposed to any role for Bashar al-Assad in any transitional government, Germany and some east European countries are more open to dialogue with Assad.
Despite Russian and Iran’s backing for Assad, there are some suggestions that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s loyalty to the Syrian president is flimsy and Moscow could be willing to sacrifice Assad in any negotiations.
While the EU could potentially play a role in peace talks, as it successfully did with Iran, it has limited powers as a bloc to intervene in Syria. Where it does have power, however, is in terms of the ongoing sanctions on Russia. With those sanctions up for renewal in January, debate has already begun in Brussels, with some countries arguing that the decision should be solely linked to developments in Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreement.
Whether the EU should decouple Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine from its activities in Syria is likely to be a key source of debate in the coming months.