Athens, Greece – Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas has lashed out at six European Union countries for “sabotaging” the bloc’s refugee relocation scheme and undermining efforts to craft a common asylum policy.
An original European Commission proposal seeking to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers throughout the EU from overcrowded camps in Greece and Italy fell significantly short after completing just 31,000 relocations by its end last September.
“We were slow to implement the proposals,” Mouzalas said on Tuesday.
“There were member states … which sabotaged these proposals; and it took a great struggle on the part of the Commission and the ministries to prevent this sabotage from leading to a failure of the programme.”
Over the last three years, Greece and Italy have become the main gateways for 1.5 million refugees arriving on Europe’s shores. Under current EU rules, known as the Dublin II regulation, refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in – an impossible burden for the Greek and Italian authorities dealing with asylum requests.
The spat over the bloc’s Relocation Programme has now opened up a gulf between EU members over how to reshape a future asylum policy.
“The idea of institutionalising relocation has become part of the Dublin reform discussion, and it has become deeply contentious within that,” Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute, Europe, told Al Jazeera.
“[It] is one of the reasons why the Dublin reform discussion has largely stalled.”
Mouzalas said that the dispute has weakened, rather than strengthened, the prospect of a common EU migration policy.
“The EU, through its institutions, tried to create a common treatment,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I think that in the first phase … this failed … Xenophobic parties are playing en ever-larger role in the formation of the political agenda. There is a turning. One cannot say whether this will win in the end,” he said.
Collett agreed that EU members had “moved further apart”, arguing that the problem lay in mistaken assumptions as Europe expanded eastwards.
“The events of the last three years raised a question that had conveniently been sidestepped,” she said.
“When Europe went through its major enlargement in 2004 [with the accession of 10 new countries], the question was never put, ‘Are you willing to host large numbers of refugees?’ I think it was assumed by existing member states that acceding member states understood this, and by acceding member states that it would never be required of them.
“What happened in 2015 or 2016 [at the height of the refugee crisis] was that the question was asked and the answer came back, ‘No, we’re not ready to do that.’ That placed a fundamental political question on the table: on what basis is Europe collectively prepared to do protection? That question has yet to be resolved, and we seem to be moving further apart with each passing month.”
The person in charge of creating Greece’s Asylum Service in 2013 took a more optimistic view.
“If we look back over the last three years in the EU, it’s an unprecedented period,” said Maria Stavropoulou, referring to the period that saw Europe grappling with the what has been described as the worst refugee and migrant crisis since World War II.
“Many things happened very quickly … People usually go forward not running but stumbling. The Relocation Programme was a process of trial and error.”
Stavropoulou, who steps down as the service’s director next month, argued that the EU proved that relocation “works if we give it a chance, and it works very well”.
She also said she believed that the naysayers would ultimately change their position.
“Sooner or later, member states tend to act like persons,” she said. “There’s a lot of human psychology in the way countries and governments act, and they like to be eventually members of a club … because it is in their self-interest.”
Rosa Balfour, a European foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank, also held out hope.
She said she saw the relocation debate as part of a broader tug-of-war between Brussels and member states over national sovereignty versus supranational decision making.
“It wasn’t just about the numbers, [holdouts] also wanted to affirm the principle that the Commission could not tell them what to do… at the moment everyone is pushing boundaries to see how far they can go,” said Balfour.
According to Balfour, the Commission has scope to leverage its power in the run-up to the EU’s next financial perspective for the 2020-2027 period, which sets a ceiling on the amount the bloc can spend in any of these years.
Poland and Hungary claim 105bn euro ($125bn) in EU funds during the current period, a significant contribution to their Gross Domestic Programme, and the Commission is considering tying funds to compliance on rule of law, freedom of speech and other issues.
“If [holdouts] were to be negatively affected by stricter conditionality on, say, rule of law issues … they could decide to renegotiate their position on certain policies, they could do some horse-trading and decide what the priorities are,” said Balfour.
The Greek government now wants the EU to focus on expanding its Resettlement Programme, which allows refugees to apply for asylum directly from third countries deemed safe such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
That, officials in Athens believe, would undermine human traffickers and take pressure off the Aegean route, one of the main ways for refugees to reach Europe via sea.
“It really needs to become the main legal avenue for refugees towards the EU,” said Stavropoulou. “To make a dent, if it is going to undercut the business model of the smugglers, it has to be significant numbers.”
Stavropoulou said she believed that means in the hundreds of thousands of refugees a year, but the Commission’s current plan seeks to resettle only 50,000 in the next two years.
The stakes for Europe are much higher than the well-being of refugees and the upholding of humanitarian law, said Collett.
The outcome of the European migration debate has the power to either advance or unravel the European project, she argued.
“Can we maintain an area of internal free movement where there are no border controls? The Schengen area, upon which all this immigration and asylum discussion is based … is more in question now than it ever has been,” she said.
“If these big questions are not resolved, some countries will start asking, ‘Should we all be working together in Schengen? Should we change the shape of Schengen? Should we have more than one of these things?’ I think there are those very, very quiet conversations taking place.”
Daniel Esdras, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Greece, said he would “never forget the first group [of relocation subjects], which was bound for Luxembourg”.
It was IOM’s job to prepare relocation subjects and make logistical preparations for their move – and he remembers well how unlikely those new beginnings seemed to amount to anything.
“We had to convince the airline to accept this group; we had to help the [Luxembourg] embassy prepare the paperwork … there was nothing. But we had to make a start,” he says.
“If we had not begun by taking risks and [displaying] courage and using all our strength, this programme would not have run as it did.”