I’m afraid this is one of those posts that may be outdated/irrelevant as soon as I hit the “publish” button since it deals with an ongoing event–the “mini-summit” of the leaders of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. It was President Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission who invited the participants, but apparently the idea of a gathering of those who are directly affected by the refugee crisis came from Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is also suspected that this extraordinary meeting is taking place under the aegis of the European Commission because Juncker and Merkel, who see eye to eye on the refugee issue, would like to avoid a full-fledged summit under the presidency of Donald Tusk. As the former prime minister of Poland, Tusk seems to be sympathetic to the hard-line East European position spearheaded by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. In fact, eurobserver.com noted a “widening gap” developing between Juncker and Tusk. Or, as a European People’s Party MEP told a journalist from a Madrid online news site, “we have a Tusk problem.” Some of Tusk’s fellow EPP members think that he is “too floppy” and therefore the European Council under his presidency doesn’t work well. “We have a real problem in decision-making.” He was a great Polish prime minister, but “he is not an export product.”
Most commentators agree that today’s gathering is an attempt by Juncker and Merkel to put pressure on the states along the refugee route through the Balkans. In the last few days Juncker repeatedly called attention to the urgency of the situation given the inclement weather conditions and the incredible pressure put on Croatia and Slovenia because of Hungary’s closing of its borders toward Serbia and Croatia. As it stands now, the number of migrants who enter Hungary daily is around 20. Currently Hungary has 605 asylum seekers in a couple of refugee camps. On the other hand, Slovenia, which has a population of two million, receives over 10,000 asylum seekers a day. As the country’s prime minister pointed out, the influx of that many people into his small country is as if one million migrants arrived in Germany every day.
Hungary’s example of closing the borders seemed attractive to some of the other East European countries along the refugee route. The exception is Serbia, whose prime minister has repeatedly declared that Serbia will not build fences or walls. Serbia’s ardent desire to belong to the European Union one day most likely has something to do with the unusually cooperative attitude of its political leadership. Those who are already members of the European Union are a great deal less cooperative.
Juncker went to the meeting with the firm resolve to take immediate and effective steps toward launching a cooperative, joint venture that would regulate the currently totally chaotic situation. Juncker, unlike Viktor Orbán, is thinking “not about short-term popularity but about substance,” as he told the Funke Media Group. The inflow of refugees is a greater emergency than the recent Greek financial crisis. The European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans called it an “existential crisis.” And he continued: “What was unimaginable before now becomes imaginable: the disintegration of the European project.” Timmermans didn’t name the countries who “lost track of what we share or the common destiny we should be building.” Instead, he noted, “we are looking especially at the differences between us.” He also called for a “return to values.”
According to reports, Juncker presented the prime ministers with a 16-point proposal that would require their immediate attention. First, the Commission wants the affected countries “to commit to refrain from facilitating the movement of refugees or migrants to the border of another country of the region without the agreement of that country.” The proposal also reconfirmed the principle that “a country may refuse entry to third-country nationals who, when presenting themselves at border crossing points, do not confirm a wish to apply for international protection.” The document includes a proposal to set up a new operation under the management of the EU’s border control agency Frontex at the Greek, Macedonian, and Albanian borders in order “to focus on existing checks but also the registration of refugees and migrants who have not yet registered in Greece.” There will be a discussion of the deployment “by Wednesday of 400 border guards and essential equipment through the activation by Slovenia of the Rapid Border Intervention Team mechanism.” In non-EU jargon this simply means that, under urgent migratory pressure, border guards on a European level could be used for the control and surveillance of internal borders.
In addition, each prime minister must nominate an official within 24 hours to be in charge of information exchange and coordination. Each country must promise to increase its capacity to provide shelter to the asylum seekers. Weekly the European Commission will check whether the countries are fulfilling their promised obligations. Angela Merkel, before the meeting, told reporters that “we all are obliged to follow the Geneva refugee convention and that’s why we need to talk today about improving the situation of refugees.” Of course, this is a reminder to Viktor Orbán that he cannot block asylum seekers from entering the country and applying for asylum. Moreover, the 16-point proposal also emphasized the humane treatment of the refugees.
Finally, each country’s government must get in touch with “international financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Development Bank of the Council of Europe, which are ready to support these efforts financially.”
What will Viktor Orbán’s reaction be to these proposals? Unless Juncker and Merkel have something up their sleeves, more of the same. Orbán’s words prior to the meeting were not encouraging. Here is the exchange between the prime minister and reporters.
Orbán Viktor: Is there any question? [laughter] No? [laughter]
Press: Yes, why are you here?
Orbán: Why am I here? It’s a good question, because…
Press: You are not on the route…
Orbán: Exactly, Hungary is not on the route anymore, so we are just observer here. But if we can help on this working meeting our neighbours with any good experiences, I’m ready to do that. But we are just simply observers.
Press: What would you say?
Orbán: How to keep the international regulations we have. So the number one source of the crisis is that the members of the European Union, especially those who are member of Schengen treaty, are not able or are not ready to keep their words. So we still have international agreements, everybody should keep it. So I hope this afternoon we will put an end to the open border policy, which is totally against Schengen treaty, we will put an end to the invitation policy, which is against the international agreement of Schengen. And everybody will say, who are member of the Schengen treaty, that we are ready to keep our words in the future. That’s just an opinion from an observer, anyway. [laughter]
This is not a translation. The exchange was conducted in English.
As for his solution to the crisis: “I hope that this afternoon we can put an end to the policy of open borders and the policy of invitation [of the migrants to Germany].” He is ready to share Hungary’s “positive experiences” with the participants in the meeting. The “positive experience” is most likely the result of erecting miles and miles of fences. After all, “the fence is close to ideal.” While he was at it, Orbán lashed out at Merkel, whom he blamed for Hungary’s problem caused by the inordinate number of migrants stuck in the country. He added, however, that in the final analysis Hungary can be grateful to Merkel because the crisis situation that developed in Hungary prompted the government to build a fence which saved Hungary from the onslaught of migrants.
Orbán is normally much braver outside of conference rooms than inside, so let’s hope that he was/will be less belligerent. We don’t know details of the meeting yet, but it seems that “nobody listened to us,” meaning Viktor Orbán. That means in my interpretation that even those countries that threatened not to cooperate and possibly to follow Hungary’s example decided to play ball with the politicians in Brussels and Germany. If I’m correct, I wonder how Orbán will sell this defeat to his people.