“Schengen is on the brink of collapse” was the gloomy conclusion drawn by Johanna Mikl-Leitner, the Austrian interior minister, following a discussion between EU ministers in Amsterdam yesterday.
The purpose of the almost nine-hour-long meeting was to devise a coherent plan to tackle the ever-rising influx of refugees towards Europe – now widely recognized as the biggest challenge the EU has ever faced – and the strain it is causing on Europe’s passport-free travel zone.
European Leaders and EU officials have been making increasingly alarmist pronouncements on Schengen’s future in recent weeks. Austria, Sweden and, to an extent, Germany, which are the three countries bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, are leading calls for more stringent national border controls among fears that the Schengen system will collapse entirely.
“We don’t have any good options, only bad options on the table,” said a senior diplomat in Brussels. “This simply can’t continue. There’s agreement among the member states on that.”
Yet, as the number of asylum seekers arriving in Europe have shown no evidence of letting-up, it is increasingly hard to see what kind of agreement could be reached between the Member-States of an EU fundamentally divided over how to tackle the crisis.
Last week the European Commission called for a European summit in February to debate migration policy and the potential reform of the Dublin III regime. The Dublin Regulation obliges refugees to seek asylum in the first country in which they arrive and has been heavily criticized in the past for being improperly implemented by several countries, including the UK. In the last two years it has also become almost impossible to enforce given the sheer number of entrants to Europe and has, therefore, resulted in a political and economic strain on the countries in Europe least able to bear it.
Angela Merkel’s decision to suspend the transfer of asylum claims to countries such as Italy or Greece under the Dublin Regulation back in August 2015 was welcomed as a significant statement of solidarity with the countries on the edge of Europe. However the arrival of more than a million refugees in 2015, the vast majority of whom have ended up in northern Europe, has seen countries such as Germany, Sweden and Austria struggle to cope. The entire concept of European free movement is now dangerously at risk.
The crisis has seen a push by some European countries for a quota system that would see refugees and migrants being settled across the continent rather than in their country of arrival. However this suggestion has been strongly rejected by some, including the United Kingdom which believes efforts to tighten Europe’s external boarders is the primary solution. The UK government has stated that it will seek to retain those aspects of Dublin III that relate to asylum seekers in any negotiation and that it will firmly oppose any reform of the Regulation, stressing that it would utilize its ‘opt out’ in relation to any relocation proposals.
In the midst of discussions over the fate of Dublin III, questions regarding the strength of Europe’s external border controls remain a focus and have recently resulted in threats by EU ministers to temporarily exclude Greece from the Schengen Zone if it fails to secure its border with Macedonia and better police its waters. However, without a meaningful reform of the Dublin System further restrictions and border controls will lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees being kettled up in Greece, a country that is already struggling to cope with wide-scale humanitarian and economic crises and the social hardship caused by both.
The Dublin III Regulation has already failed in its objective. The EU summit due next month is likely to be critical if European leaders are to agree on a new, more balanced, framework for dealing with asylum claims within Europe, one that is fair to Member States and fair to the people risking their lives to escape persecution. If they cannot or are unwilling to, the rhetoric of “something has to be done” will remain the futile narrative in an otherwise divisive and ever-growing humanitarian crisis that, many are starting to predict, could see the end of Europe as we have known it.