Rifts in Europe over irregular migration remain after ‘success’ of new EU deal

The club remains split between those that support Brussels’ initiatives focused on distributing migrants between members and those countries, like Hungary or Poland, whose far-right governments consider the influx of outsiders a threat

Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez
Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attend a press conference on the day of the informal meeting of European leaders, in Granada, Spain, October 6, 2023.JON NAZCA (REUTERS)

Despite a breakthrough in negotiations earlier this week, the leaders of the European Union immediately clashed again Friday on how to handle the human drama of migration that has tested their sense of common purpose over the past decade.

The world’s largest club of wealthy countries remains split between those that support Brussels’ initiatives focused on distributing migrants between members in an act of solidarity and those countries, like Hungary or Poland, whose far-right governments consider the influx of outsiders a threat. Italy is even going outside the EU to establish links with the United Kingdom to crack down on unwanted arrivals.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was blunt about how far Europe’s leaders still are from reaching a consensus before they met in Granada, Spain. Orbán, who has pushed back against EU policy repeatedly and taken a hard-line approach against migration, said that he won’t sign off on any deal at any point in the foreseeable future. He went as far as to compare the situation to being “legally raped” by Hungary’s fellow EU members. “The agreement on migration, politically, it’s impossible — not today (or) generally speaking for the next years,” Orbán said. “Because legally we are, how to say it — we are raped. So if you are raped legally, forced to accept something what you don’t like, how would you like to have a compromise?”

The dispute is over an agreement struck on Wednesday that, if it becomes policy, would involve setting up processing centers on the EU’s outside borders to screen people as they arrived. The deal, agreed by a majority of the EU’s interior ministers, will now go to the European Parliament, where further negotiations will take place before it can become binding.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also bashed the deal, maintaining his government’s position that it keeps migrants out for security reasons. Both Poland and Hungary flatly refuse any shared responsibility for migrants arriving to other member states.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, however, remained optimistic when she took her turn before the microphones just moments after Orbán. She called the deal a “big success.” “Now the probability is very high and I’m confident that we will it over the finish line,” Europe’s top executive said.

Neither Hungary nor Poland could veto a final pact, but their refusal to comply with European policy in the past has bordered on provoking institutional crises, and the bloc would be eager to avoid similar tensions with its eastern members.

The EU has been trying to forge a new common policy on migration ever since it was overwhelmed in 2015 by well over 1 million arrivals, mostly refugees fleeing war in Syria. Since then, it has focused on paying countries like Turkey, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco to do the dirty work of stopping migrants before they embark on the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, where nearly 30,000 people have died since 2014, according to the UN migration agency.

A draft of a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been criticized by human right groups as conceding ground to more hard-line approaches, was touted as the answer to the EU’s migration woes when it was made public in September 2020.

For the scheme to enter into force, officials and lawmakers say, an agreement must be reached between a majority of member countries and parliament by February before EU elections in June. European Parliament president Roberta Metsola said she was hopeful this would finally get done. “I remain optimistic because what had kept us behind in the past was that there was no political will,” Metsolas said. “There is no silver bullet, but let’s not kill this pact before we adopt it. We owe it to ourselves and to our citizens.”

Migration flows into the EU have been on the rise this year, even if they are down from the 2015-16 peak. From January to October, some 194,000 migrants and refugees reached Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus by boat, compared to 112,000 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The issue of migration was not going to be a priority of this informal meeting, where leaders already had the prickly question of how to continue with expansion to include the Balkan countries and a Ukraine that is immersed in battling Russia’s invasion.

But migration was put on the agenda by Italy’s far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni. Italy has seen an influx of people arriving in recent months, including the arrival of 7,000 people to the tiny fishing island of Lampedusa on a single day last month. Meloni and Britain’s conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced Friday in an op-ed article published in Corriere della Sera and The Times of London newspapers that they were forming an alliance against illegal migration in a bilateral move beyond Brussels’ sphere of influence.

The one-day summit in the picturesque city of Granada is just an hour’s drive from Spain’s southern coast, where boatloads of people fleeing violence or poverty in Africa wash up regularly. Spain’s marine rescue service reported Friday it had intercepted another 500 migrants in six boats approaching the Canary Islands located off the northwest coast of Africa. Previously this week, the archipelago’s tiny El Hierro island, pop. 10,000, took in 1,200 migrants arriving in open wooden boats that are believed to have departed from Senegal on the hazardous journey northward.

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