Mon, Nov 16, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Malta summit laid bare EU’s deep dilemmas over refugees

While Luxembourg has resettled the first of more than 600,000 people to arrive in Greece, policy divisions within the EU are widening

By Ian Traynor  /  The Guardian, VALLETA, Malta

Illustration: Yusha

The Aegean Airlines flight left Athens for Brussels at 8:30am on Nov. 4, carrying six Syrian and Iraqi families to new lives in Luxembourg. On arrival, the 30 refugees were taken on a two-hour bus trip to the grand duchy to have their paperwork processed.

It was undoubtedly a big moment, not only for the men, women and children who made the short but treacherous crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands. Of the more than 600,000 people who have crossed into the EU by reaching Greece this year, these were the first to be registered, fingerprinted and then resettled elsewhere in Europe under the EU’s ambitious, if flagging, plan to use compulsory quotas to share 160,000 refugees.

It took the Luxembourg authorities two months to settle their newcomers. None of those lingering in Greece wanted to move to the EU’s wealthiest nation in per capita terms, second globally only to Qatar. Luxembourg chairs the EU’s rotating presidency.

European Commission President and former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker is one the architects of the new quota system. So Luxembourg officials were keen to be seen to be doing their bit.

“Some of those selected to go to Luxembourg refused, because they all wanted to go to Germany,” EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said.

If refugees are refusing to go to Luxembourg, it would be a much taller order persuading them to go to Slovakia or Estonia.

The faltering start in Greece to sharing refugees in Europe highlights the EU’s multiple dilemmas, as leaders met in Malta on Wednesday and Thursday last week for their fifth summit since June on the emergency.

The confusion, disputes and mudslinging of the past few months have opened up a fundamental question. Do they want a Europe of open or closed borders? The dilemma is embodied in the diametrically opposed policies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orb.

Merkel has won international plaudits for her liberal, open-door policies. She is also under siege, however, at home from malcontents in her coalition government, in the EU because her partners are not sure what she wants, and by other nations who said they are willing to help but are also baffled by the absence of coherent policy in Berlin.

Orb, gleefully denouncing liberals as clueless, sealing Hungary’s borders with razorwire and effectively abolishing the claiming of asylum, is walking tall at home because of his hardline policies. He is also increasingly winning the quiet support of other EU leaders.

“I don’t say he should be entirely supported,” a senior senior diplomat involved with the Malta summit said. “But he has a point. There is some truth in what he says. Drastic, restrictive positions would have helped earlier.”

The two-day Valletta summit was a lavish event, bringing together more than 60 European and African leaders, with the EU carrying a mixed bag of sticks and carrots, including a US$1.9 billion “trust fund” in an attempt to convince African governments into taking refugees and migrants back and stopping them from coming to Europe in the first place.

Many of them are disenchanted with an EU containment strategy that they feel resembles a form of blackmail.

“They say it’s all about Europe externalizing and outsourcing its own problems,” said the diplomat, who has been liaising with African governments.

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