Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán | Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
By JACOPO BARIGAZZI 6/6/16, 5:32 AM CET
The European Commission is set to launch a new attempt to find EU consensus on migration with proposals aimed at overcoming differences with Eastern European countries such as Hungary.
The measures — which are expected to be unveiled Tuesday by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and First Vice President Frans Timmermans — focus on financial help to the African countries that are the source of migration to Europe.
But according to officials they also include a political twist: an effort to accommodate Eastern European concerns about stemming the flow of refugees.
European Council President Donald Tusk has spent months trying to find agreement between the eastern and western EU countries. At a meeting last week of center-right European leaders, Tusk portrayed the issue as a difference of opinion between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán over how welcoming to be to refugees.
“We will either understand that the views of Angela and Viktor are compatible with each other and only together can they provide a full answer, or people will search for other radical and brutal recipes for how to solve the crisis,” Tusk said.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is welcomed by European Council President Donald Tusk prior to their meeting in Brussels, Belgium, June 1, 2016 | Olivier Hoslet/EPA
The Commission’s new package, officials said, tries to find that common ground. It builds upon a proposal made by Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in April, the so-called Migration Compact, which also reflects ideas the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic body, has been working on for years about linking EU development aid to cooperation in controlling migrant flows.
It also incorporates ideas put forward more recently by Orbán, the EU leader most strongly opposed to the Commission’s policies on migration — especially when it comes to the relocation of refugees across Europe. The Hungarian prime minister presented his vision of a migration policy, which he termed “Schengen 2.0,” in April. At least six of the 10 points in the plan match up with the Italian proposal. According to an EU official, several of those ideas will be in the Commission’s new package.
Both the Hungarian and Italian plans push to link financial help to African countries with stronger commitments to control their borders and agreements to take back refugees. Both back the idea of setting up reception centers outside the EU for the processing of asylum claims. Both are also partly reliant upon the success of the EU’s deal with Turkey, which has agreed to take back refugees and migrants in exchange for money (and, in Ankara’s case, also in exchange for re-energized accession talks).
“Asylum procedures should be completed outside the EU in closed and protected hotspots before the first entry on the territory of the EU,” states Orbán’s plan. “Third countries should be supported in establishing a system of reception and management of migratory flows … which should foresee careful on-site screening of refugees and economic migrants,” reads Renzi’s.
Publicly, the Hungarians have had a harder time than the Italians in finding support for their plan. Privately, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said he’s happy that Hungary has put forward its own proposals, according to an EU diplomat. But Hungarians complain that so far it has received little or no acknowledgment from the Commission or Mogherini.
At a meeting of foreign affairs ministers at the end of May, the Hungarian delegation pushed to have the Schengen 2.0 proposal acknowledged in the final document of the meeting, diplomats said — adding that Budapest had refused to first sort out the matter at ambassadorial level.
Diplomats said Mogherini negotiated a compromise and in the end the ministers welcomed “the presentation of innovative proposals by all member states, including the ‘migration compact’ proposed by Italy” whereas it “will also continue to look into the proposal by Hungary on ‘Schengen 2.0.'”
It remains to be seen exactly how many of Hungary’s ideas will find their way into the Commission’s new package. The movement by the Commission in Budapest’s direction is likely to be more subtle than overt. Diplomats and officials said the Italian and Hungarian proposals have so many common points that it would be easy for the Commission to say that it has a looked at both.
Mogherini will also be under pressure to consider more than just Italy’s ideas. According to an EU diplomat, if the proposal is too close to Renzi’s, “it could be dangerous for her because she could be accused to have a bias” for Italy, her country of origin.
Another factor is the upcoming presidency of the EU by another Eastern European country that has been a thorn in the Commission’s side on migration: Slovakia. It will also be the first time the EU presidency will be held by a country so openly critical of the bloc’s migration policy since the crisis began in mid-2015.
The country’s European affairs minister said last month that Slovakia would aim to create a “sustainable” EU migration policy during its six-month tenure in the presidency.
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini | Stephane de Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images
Still, major differences remain between Hungary’s approach and that favored by the Commission — and not only because Budapest is opposed to the mandatory relocation of refugees. The Hungarian plan also does not include any proposal to reform EU’s so-called Dublin system, which requires that refugees be registered in their first country of arrival — a policy that puts heavy pressure on frontline states such as Italy and Greece.
The Italians have been pushing hard to change the regulation, and the Commission in May unveiled a set of proposals to reform it that include a possible financial penalty for EU countries that don’t accept relocated refugees. But Budapest’s proposal calls for “the reestablishment of the proper functioning of the Dublin System,” while allowing that “frontline member countries’ as well as Western Balkan countries’ efforts to support the EU’s migration policy should be assisted by the necessary financial and other needs.”
To try to bridge the difference, Hungary’s state secretary for EU affairs, Szabolcs Takács, met Thursday in Brussels with Marco Peronaci, a special advisor to Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.
Other Eastern European countries are also weighing into the debate with proposals of their own.
A Czech think-tank, European Values, last week presented in the European Parliament another reform of the migration system that was put together by speaking to many officials in Eastern Europe but also to German and Austrian officials.
“This is not supposed to be an eastern proposal but it’s more based on Europe-wide consultations,” says Radko Hokosky, executive director of the Prague based think-tank.
Under the Czech proposal the Dublin regulation would be unchanged but “people admissible for international protection would only be those coming from immediately neighboring the EU territory” as all the others should apply in “safe countries of origin” or in “safe third countries” outside the EU. In this way, he says, the number of applicants would drop from one million to one hundred thousand.
The plan’s authors have requested a meeting with the Commission and are waiting for an answer.