By PATRICK STEPHENSON, with BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – Migration and the Western Balkans are two governing priorities of the EU’s new Bulgarian presidency, according the country’s prime minister, Boyko Borissov, and other officials. That was the main take-away his comments to an event sponsored here by the Hanns-Seidel Foundation on 1 February.
Lilyana Pavlova, minister for Bulgaria’s presidency, laid out her country’s priorities. Rhetorically asking what kind of Europe should be in place by the benchmarks of 2020 and 2030, she said Sofia will balance traditional EU priorities such as its common agricultural policy with migration and climate change. The key question will be to fit them all together into the next financial framework. “We expect a draft proposal to be presented in May,” she said.
Bulgaria’s second priority is security and stability in Europe, with a particular focus on migration. “We hope to find an agreement on [revising] the Dublin regulation on relocation by the end of June that is based on responsibility and solidarity,” she said.
Sofia’s third priority is to deepen EU relations with the Western Balkans. “We believe that Europe is not a complete project without having the Western Balkan countries on board,” she said.
Manfred Weber, member of the European Parliament and chair of its European People Party’s political group, urged Bulgaria to qualify quickly for accession to the EU’s Schengen visa-free region. Referring to reluctance among some EU member states to admit Bulgaria on concerns about crime and security, he said “Schengen means more security, not less.”
As an example, Weber recalled how many of his fellow Germans opposed EU membership for the Czech Republic due to similar worries. But he argued that Czech membership actually helped to solve many previously unsolved criminal cases. “In the year after Czech Republic acceded [to the EU], we solved half of our backlogged crimes,” he said. The reason? “So many old cases were cleared up because Czech and [German] police shared their [criminal] databases.”
Per Weber migration is the “open wound” of Europe” because of its political impact.
“We see the role that migration plays in elections. In the future, we should be able to decide quickly about borders – who isn’t a refugee and needs to go straight back, and who is a refugee,” he said, adding that climate change and demographics will only aggravate the problem. “Without a long term solution in Africa, problems are going to explode. We might not be able to control it [migration].”
Regarding the Western Balkans, Weber said one of the region’s biggest problems is not immigration, but emigration: “A hundred thousand young people leave the region every year. We need to give a signal that the region has a future.”
Finally, Borissov took the floor, delivering disjointed remarks without benefit of notes. Bemoaning the EU’s approach to migration, he said “security and migration are a topic that tears apart the EU, with many hard words and insults that I never imagined would be spoken by ministers of member states.”
Borissov seemed to suggest that Europe bore some responsibility for the migration waves that have washed over its shores. “The Arab Spring turned into a European winter and caused huge damage,” he said. “Diplomacy failed. We didn’t bring democracy, but we did create thousands of victims. It is all boomeranging back on Europe.”
Borissov decried what he described as the EU’s dysfunctional system for handling migrants. “Bulgarian taxpayers give millions for European security, but when one of those migrants come through, they end up in Germany. That’s why the Dublin regulations don’t work. Bulgaria takes in 1200 migrants. But they run away. We get them back, and they run away again.”
A missed opportunity was the failure of European countries to establish migration centers within the affected countries themselves. “Had we closed the borders three years ago, and established the centres in areas of conflict, we could have protected [migrants] with our armed forces,” he said.
Borissov was adamant that in future Europe must process migrants away from its shores. Referring to African migrants, he said, “instead of focusing on what to do with them in Germany [Europe should] focus on the border and put migration centers near the conflict zone. They [immigrants] should know they’ll be going back, rather than thinking about how many of them will come.”
He concluded his remarks with a call for the EU to play a bigger role in the Western Balkans. “We shouldn’t let Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and other countries draw lines of influence [in the region],” he said. “They’re a backyard if you sit and look from London. But from our side, they’re the gateway for us to get to you.”
The EU’s next multi-annual budget for 2021-2027, for example, will be squeezed hard by Brexit and the removal of the UK’s financial contribution to Europe’s common operating budget. Worse, the member states have displayed an abysmal lack of solidarity in dealing with their region’s immigration crisis. National politics will trump – and virulently, according to the country – any prospects for EU solidarity.
Moreover, the EU’s porous borders along its southern and south eastern frontiers offer little protection and will take years to shore up via Frontex, the EU’s border agency, and long term investments at the national and EU levels.
Far better to acknowledge reality and consider the idea of offshore processing centres for refugees and immigrants headed Europe’s way. Borissov is by no means the first official to air this idea, and it will be controversial for the reasons he outlined – and costly. However, doing that would be a lot less costly than having to deal ad hoc with the multitude and amplitude of problems caused by the waves of unfiltered immigrants that flooded into Europe at the peak of the problem in 2015.