Europe may not be refugees' fertile ground
Guy Burton

Editor's note: Guy Burton is an adjunct professor at Vesalius College in Brussels, and a visiting fellow at the LSE Middle East Center. The article reflects the author's opinion and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

As World Refugee Day is commemorated around the world today, what is the European approach and response? The question is an important one. The European Union (EU) is in a moment of transition, having recently held elections to the European Parliament last month, a new European Commission which will propose and implement legislation soon to be appointed and a new five-year strategy about to be set out by the body which represents the governments of the EU member states, the European Council.

The question of refugees and asylum is likely to be high on the agenda. A surge of refugees and irregular migrants arrived at Europe’s doorstep in 2015 and was leading to a political backlash in the form of the far right's rise. As a result, the issue has grown in salience as European leaders have come under pressure for a regional response.

On June 19, 2019, the UN reported that in 2018 there were 70 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution or conflict. Of that number, 25.9 million are refugees (i.e. who had received resettlement status in a host country), 3.5 million are asylum seekers (i.e. they have applied and are waiting to receive refugee status) and 41.3 million are internally displaced people inside their home countries.

The arrival of numerous new asylum seekers exposed a lack of a regional response. An earlier EU regulation, whereby asylum claims were to be assessed by the state where an applicant first arrived, was found to be inadequate. Countries like Greece, Italy and Spain faced disproportionate pressure because they were often the first port of call for many of the new arrivals crossing the Mediterranean or passing through Turkey.

In response, the Commission introduced an action plan and financial assistance in 2016 to help refugees and asylum seekers access public services. The Commission also boosted its humanitarian budget to finance projects to deal with the effects of forcible displacement at home and abroad.

Hands of migrants are seen on board the MV Aquarius in the harbor of Valletta, Malta, August 15, 2018. /VCG Photo

Hands of migrants are seen on board the MV Aquarius in the harbor of Valletta, Malta, August 15, 2018. /VCG Photo

Looking ahead, the Commission proposed a more coordinated and integrated approach. In 2016, it drafted a Union Resettlement Framework to provide common rules and solutions which would replace previous ad hoc efforts. By 2018 the Commission and Parliament had agreed its structure, but it was stalled by disagreement in the Council. Its final passage and implementation will therefore be a key challenge for the forthcoming 2019-24 cycle.

However, the Framework's implementation is not assured. It faces public and political pressure, especially in frontline states like Greece, Italy and Spain which were already reeling from the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis and demands to cut public spending so as to keep in line with their membership of the euro.

Taking advantage of the situation in those European countries which have received the most asylum applicants has been the nationalist and populist far right parties and politicians. Their success has been partly helped by their conflation of asylum seekers with irregular migrants, both of whom share the Mediterranean transit route.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini's League party won 17 percent of the vote at the 2018 general election and became the third largest party in Parliament. Salvini became the interior minister and immediately took a hardline position against irregular migration, stating that he would not allow ships with irregular migrants to dock and threatening to fine anyone who provided assistance to them at sea.

In Spain, the Vox party took a similarly strong stand, threatening to deport irregular migrants. In April's general election it won enough votes to sit in Parliament for the first time. This followed an earlier breakthrough by the Alternative for Germany party in Germany, which had done the same in the 2017 elections. The one exception to the nationalist and far right advance was in France, where the National Front was beaten in the presidential election.

Syrian dancer and choreographer Ahmad Joudeh performs on the occasion of World Refugee Day at the Simone Veil Esplanade in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, June 20, 2018. /VCG Photo

Syrian dancer and choreographer Ahmad Joudeh performs on the occasion of World Refugee Day at the Simone Veil Esplanade in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, June 20, 2018. /VCG Photo

More recently, the blurring of irregular migration and asylum was felt over the Global Compact for Migration last autumn. In 2016, governments at the UN agreed a non-binding New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants. The Declaration provided the basis for talks which led to a Global Compact on Migration. The Global Compact proposed a series of voluntary measures that states could take to reduce pressure on host countries, help refugees become more self-reliant, provide more third country solutions and support refugees' conditions at home so that they might return there safely.

Yet even as it was being drafted, Hungary withdrew its involvement. Then, last October, Austria did the same, which led to public protests against the Global Compact and government splits in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Slovakia. The European Parliament withdrew its earlier support for the Compact and political elites held their breath ahead of the European elections; they feared that the far right might take up to a third of the seats.

In the end the right did not do as well as had been expected. Although they did increase their vote and number of seats, this was balanced by a similar increase by liberal and green parties. The results have been welcomed by those who feared the right and hope that its tide has now peaked.

This will also be felt by those governments in the Council who are keen to find a solution and which are not as skeptical like the Italian or Hungarian governments. Consequently, it will be important to watch what the Council decides are the priorities for the 2019-24 cycle and who is appointed to the Commission positions responsible for foreign policy, refugees, migration and humanitarian aid.

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