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EU migration fudged deal: Interpret it as you like

Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady

Published: Updated:

With migrant ships being told not to dock in some European ports and migrants dying on the high seas, the question arises on what exactly was agreed at the much trumpeted EU Summit agreement in July? In the immediate wake of the deal struck in Brussels after nine straight hours of negotiations at the European Summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks to have quelled the revolt by her Christian Social Union sister party.

Indeed, the CSU hunters have in some sense now become the hunted. In Germany, which took in more than a million migrants in 2015, Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition partner has threatened to shut the border to migrants who have applied for asylum elsewhere in the EU, a move that could trigger the collapse of her government and mark the end of the EU’s sacrosanct passport-free Schengen zone. The German chancellor has said migration could “decide the fate of the EU”, but more likely her own political fate.

Merkel returned to Berlin with enough concessions from the Summit to solidify her position within CDU, whose rank and file will rally around her, including those on its right who were sympathetic to the CSU attacks. Merkel herself could still be brought down in the CSU infighting, albeit a low probability. Although the immediate political crisis has been defused, Merkel's Grand Coalition remains fragile, and vulnerable to renewed pressures in the run up to the October 13 Bavarian elections.

Merkel went into the EU Summit with a weakened hand like never before in her 13 years as Chancellor and always invariably driving the European agenda. Gloomy headlines about an Italian demand that threatened to derail the Summit, and a cancelled press conference only proved to heighten how remarkable the turn was in the Summit's waning eight hours of negotiations. In one of the more ironic turns, Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stepped up first to offer a way out of the political impasse, bolstering the concessions by Spain and France to support Merkel.

Key concessions instead emerged by the Summit's end, including new (albeit voluntary) measures to share asylum seekers and a vague statement in the final test on the need for EU states to combat “secondary migration.” More importantly, Merkel won secondary agreements from Spain and Greece to accept the return of migrants in Germany who first arrived in their respective countries.

Even Austria got cold feet about the political mess they would have to clean up just as they take up the EU Presidency if the CSU followed through on their unilateral border policy threats. A key moment came when even Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, something of the "Darling of the CSU," issued a public “warning” to Germany that Austria would have to follow suit with unilateral measures if borders were closed.

Unilateral versus multi-lateral policy -- by that the Germans mean "nationalist" versus European policy that has been sacrosanct in the post-war period and made an article of faith by former CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- was in fact the bridge over which Merkel was able to step across the political abyss created in the CSU rebellion.
EU27 leaders emerged from nearly nine hours of talks saying that they had reached an agreement on migration Although the numbers of migrants arriving in Europe have fallen by 90% since their 2015 peak, the fallout has fuelled a political crisis between and within EU capitals, with a new populist government in Italy – where most of those migrants making it across the Mediterranean are landing – demanding the rest of the bloc take “concrete steps” to share its burden (and willing to veto any deal if they do not), and anti-immigration leaders in countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic rejecting even the idea of automatic quotas.

Devil in the details

But the devil was in the details or more precisely, how did the various parties interpret the agreement with all claiming victory back home. Like many EU deals, this was a carefully but vaguely worded fudge to satisfy divergent views. It stopped well short of decisively solving the problem, but may have raised enough of a platform to build on. Satisfying Italy, member states agreed to send rescued migrants on EU territory to so-called “control centres” across the bloc – at locations still to be decided, and only in countries that volunteer to have them.

There, “rapid and secure processing” will sift economic migrants from refugees with a potential right to asylum, “for whom the principle of solidarity would apply”. Appeasing the central Europeans, no relocation measures will be compulsory making the agreement already dead upon signing. Leaders also backed plans to tighten their external border, give more money to countries like Turkey and Morocco to help prevent migrants leaving for Europe, and set up processing centres in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia. And in what looks like a possible lifeline for Merkel, the accord said governments should “take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures” to stop refugees and migrants crossing Europe’s internal borders. Opposition already began from the non- EU countries. The Moroccans have already said they are opposed to the plan and Libya, from where the majority of African migrants depart, has not also fully signed on, with rival governments in that country.

The reaction was revealing however from the EU leaders as Italy which had been the most vociferous sounded happy, with its prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, saying the country “is no longer alone”. Merkel said the deal was “a good signal” but much still needed to be done and France’s Emmanuel Macron said it was “an important step” and had delivered a “European solution and cooperation”, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s fiercely anti-immigration interior minister, said “real progress” had been made. The deal, and whatever actions eventually follow, is not enough to heal Europe’s deep political divides over migration. In the meantime, migrants are still dying on the high seas and volunteer groups are under pressure to find safe haven landing ports. Political agreements are one thing, implementation on what was really agreed is another.
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Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and co author of ‘ OPEC in a Post Shale world – where to next?’. His latest book is on ‘Saudi Aramco 2030: Post IPO challenges ‘.

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