By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – On 5 September, the European Union Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the European Council had not overstepped its authority when it adopted its plan in September 2015 to relocate 120,000 migrants from Italy and Greece to other European countries over a two-year period. With its ruling, the ECJ dismissed a lawsuit brought by Hungary and Slovakia alleging that the relocation programme was unlawful.
In his reaction to the ECJ’s decision, Hungary Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó did not mince his words, calling it “outrageous and irresponsible”. For Szijjártó, “politics has raped European law.”
Other responses were more measured. “Slovakia fully respects the verdict of the European Court of Justice,” said Peter Susko, spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, before claiming the migrant relocation mechanism “fails to work in real life”.
In fact, the next day the European Commission released another relocation report showing that the programme is not far from achieving its goals. The original target figure of 120,000 re-located migrants was eventually pared down to around 30,500 – mainly because migrants either skipped the programme and found a way to get directly to their desired country (usually Germany) or because the migrants themselves, as economic refugees, were deemed not eligible.
Of the much smaller number, 27,695 had been relocated (19,244 from Greece and 8,451 from Italy) as of 4 September, despite the refusals of Hungary and Poland to accept a single migrant. Those numbers may rise slightly – the relocation programme will review the eligibility of any migrant that arrives in Italy or Greece before 27 September – but, given rising levels of relocation, they will probably prove manageable.
Although the numbers of relocation-eligible migrants have fallen, irregular migration continues.
In Italy, the Commission’s report notes that authorities have lagged in their identification of migrants (particularly Eriteans) eligible for relocation. But a new development has surprised EU border authorities: the number of migrants arriving in Italy has began to fall steeply. According to figures from the Italian Interior Ministry, some 4,000 migrants arrived in the country between mid-July and mid-August 2017, or but a fifth of the number during the same period of previous years.
Part of the answer for the reduction may lie in Italy’s crack-down on NGOs running their own migrant-rescue boat operations close to Libyan waters. Then too, in early September it emerged that Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti cut deals with tribes in Libya’s south to shut down human smuggling networks.
In an interview with The Guardian, Minniti denied that the money changing hands as a result of the deals constituted bribes. Noting that in these regions human smuggling was often the only source of revenue, he described the payments as “alternative income” that would be the basis of an “alternative economy.” It is uncertain whether the EU had any prior knowledge of the deals. There are also questions about how long the deals might last or whether migrants will find other routes through Morocco and the western Mediterranean, for example.
Meanwhile, the EU continues looking for ways to tighten its borders and keep tabs on migrants with violent extremist views via better information exchange. On 4 September, just before the ECJ ruling, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs reviewed how to improve the interoperability of the EU information systems with a view to tightening external border control. Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, and Krum Garkov, director of EU-LISA, the union’s information management agency addressed the meeting.
Avramopoulos called on the member states to “demonstrate trust”, an oblique reference to the unwillingness of some members to join parts of their national intelligence networks to a broader EU network.
“In several [recent terror] attacks, a more timely and effective sharing of information could have saved lives. What is the use of all these systems [of information] if they are isolated silos that do not speak to each other?” Avramopoulos promised that interoperable systems would include “full respect of fundamental rights, especially data protection”.
Garkov then added: “Interoperability is not about merging databases, and it is not about providing access for everyone to everything in the existing systems. It’s about efficiency and efficient use of the information collected.”
During question time, Finnish MEP Jussi Halla-Aho pointed to the terror attack that took place in Turku, Finland on 18 August. The suspect had come to Finland from Germany as an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum. Halla-Aho explained that in the aftermath of the attack – in which two people were stabbed to death – Finnish investigators found that in Germany the Moroccan-born attacker had acquired a criminal record and showed signs of radicalisation. He was also found to be 22 years old, and not a minor.
Better information exchange between Germany and Finland might have prevented the attack, said Halla-Aho.
Thus, individual member states are taking matters into their own hands. Italy is making backdoor payments to Saharan tribes, using “alternative income” – nice euphemism for bribes – to make it more lucrative for the Libyans to pull the migrants back, rather than push them forward across the Mediterranean. But any one nation-state solution, however successful in the short term, is bound to function as just a small bandage on a much larger wound.
As we go to press, EU media report that border officials are noticing a big uptick in migrants passing across the Black Sea from Turkey to Romania. Migrant numbers are also rising in Spain. The demand behind human smuggling is strong, and the market will work its magic in the absence of a strong collective solution by the EU28. At the very least, greater information exchanges – now underway – will enable the member states to better locate where their migrants are, and which might present a legitimate risk.
As for Hungary and Slovakia, it’s hard to be sympathetic. After all, relocation was about solidarity. For a country to claims it’s being victimised and that politics are being “raped”, Hungary seems more than happy to receive some EUR 5 billion more in funding every year than it pour into the EU’s budget. In exchange, the Commission only asks that the country accept around 1200 migrants – surely manageable in a country of 10 million.
That said, the ECJ cannot force Hungary, Slovakia, or any other EU member state to accept migrants their governments don’t want. Infringement proceedings would require unanimity in the Council, and Poland backs Hungary.
The Commission can still sue, and eventually make the laggards pay fines for their intransigence. But the meantime, if the EU can’t get its act together, then nation-states like Italy will continue finding their own underhanded ways of slowing the migrants down. It’s a messy situation.