On February 24, 2016, in Vienna, the Foreign and Interior Ministers of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia signed a petition to stop the flow of migrants in the Balkan area for safety reasons, lack of resources and because the phenomenon represents a challenge to their integration in Europe. However, the summit was lacking an important player in the migration strategy: Greece, which is now facing a huge internal crisis because of a massive wave of migrants who arrived, stopped by the restrictions of these countries at the borders.

The migration issue is still at the heart of European politics. If at the beginning member states were trying to come up with a common solution to handle the problem, now it seems really difficult to find an agreement on the quota system. In fact, the majority of migrants are arriving in Europe through the so-called Balkan route, which is now the bone of contention between member states. Since 2012, the route became a popular passage into the EU, thanks to less restrictive Schengen visa rules established for five Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The Eastern countries of the Visegrad Group (V4) composed of Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have also seen the late comer Austria, which is joining the group with a restriction on asylum requests stated at 37,500 this year. It seems that this part of Europe is fighting against the Schengen agreement, supporting the idea of building borders in southern Bulgaria and Macedonia. Consequently, Greece would result cut off from the Schengen area and from Europe. The consequence of the final implementation of these security fences would also be a threat for both Turkey and Greece: how would they handle the massive wave of migrants who would remain, by force, in its territory? Too many migrants arrive in Greece from Turkey.

This is why the European Council is pushing Ankara to adopt more decisive measures. In November 2014, Turkey and the European Union have agreed on a joint plan to reduce the flow of migrants within the twenty-eight of the territory with which Ankara is committed to protect borders, to resettle refugees in exchange of $3 billion in aid and momentum to negotiate entry into the EU country. Support to Greece came also from the UN High Commissioner for Human Right, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein who emphasized that the measures are exacerbating “the chaos and misery all down the line,” and especially in Greece, which is already overwhelmed. The relations between Vienna and Athens are now facing a very difficult period, divided by the different needs of the two countries concerning the migrant’s issue.

The President of the European Council Donald Tusk said that the plan remains a priority. European Commission President, Jean-Claude Junker confirmed that the cooperation with Turkey has no alternative: “We need a European approach to the crisis of refugees – he said – no more national solos, which are unsavory.” This statement has been shared also by the Italian Prime Minister Renzi who has warned Austria about unilateral actions, focusing his attention on the placement of funds, which could be affected by those actions. According to the news, Austria is considering the possibility of a military deployment in the Balkans in case of emergency.

The Defense Minister of Austria, Hans Peter Doskozil, spoke of a possible “military-civilian joint missions” to cover the area that the V4 has aimed to close. Addressing numerous critics, the Foreign Minister of Austria called for an understanding regarding the Austrian policy. As a human being, he is “100 percent” sympathizing with refugees, but as a politician he has the responsibility to act and prevent the situation in which his country will not able to cope with the migration crisis, the diplomat claimed. To speak the truth, the situation is urgent also according to FRONTEX data. The record number of migrants arriving in Greece had a direct chain effect on the Western Balkan route, as the people who entered the EU via Greece tried to make their way through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia into Hungary and Croatia and then towards Western Europe. This led to an unprecedented number of detections of illegal crossings at Hungary’s borders with Serbia. After Hungary completed a fence on its border with Serbia in September, the flow of migrants shifted to Croatia. In 2015, the region recorded 764,000 detections, a 16-fold rise from 2014. The top-ranking nationality was Syrian, followed by Iraqis and Afghans.

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By contrast, the “Coalition of Willing” (Germany, Italy, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia, and France) is still considering the quota system as part of a wider and European solution. The result is that Europe is strongly divided on this pivotal issue which is affecting all the national security, welfare and political systems and thus, it can be defined as a “European issue” par excellence. While the migrant’s wave is becoming more and more prominent and counted about 80,000 people this year, alongside with basic human rights gross violations, the Visegrad group is calling for border closures, additional personnel based on borders between Balkan states and Greek and more controls. Facing this situation, likely to happen or not, would mean trying to answer to at least two questions: What would be the political outcome of scheduled construction of a defensive border in the South of Macedonia and Bulgaria? Where will they go if Macedonia closes its southern border – the most frequented route?

Apart from the Balkan route, according to the map above, migrants could also choose different way to pass through: Macedonia’s main route, the Bulgarian highway, the East Balkan countries and the Adriatic Route, mentioned for the first time by Ranko Ostojic, Interior Minister of Croatia. With that statement, he was the first official to have mentioned the Adriatic route. In the next days, we will see what will be the future for migrants, for Turkey and for Greece. However, it is certain that national politics is a huge obstacle against a common European policy and, not to mention, a huge factor of division among member states.

According to Ioannis Mouzalas, the Greek Minister of Migration Policy, the country could end up with 70,000 people remaining stuck in its territory, without basic necessities. Greece cannot accept to be the “Lebanon of Europe, where so many could remain blocked. We are expecting a strong signal from Europe, even though this could mean an increase in European funds.” The conditions of these people are getting worse, and even more for the 2,000 children who are travelling in Greece and Turkey. Nonetheless, the V4 group does not seem to be concerned about the gross violations of human rights, which can easily happen in this situation. During these hard times, while the Greek government is implementing an emergency plan, a European meeting has been held in order to fund with €700 million the Balkan countries in difficulties covering a three-year time span. The tensions in Europe will not stop until a common solution will be found. March began with migrants’ assault to the fence that marks the hottest borders of the Balkan route, whereas in Idomeni (small village in Greece) more than 6,000 people are waiting to cross the borders in order to reach Europe.

The situation is at a breaking point, and nobody could know what would be the next move in Brussels.

Federica Mastroforti

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)


References

“Big, bad Visegrad,” The Economist, January 30, 2016. www.economist.com/news/europe/21689629-migration-crisis-has-given-unsettling-new-direction-old-alliance-big-bad-visegrad

“Greece refugee crisis: Border area at breaking point,” Al Jazeera, March 6, 2016. www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/refugee-crisis-greek-governor-urges-state-emergency-160305130622083.html

FRONTEX. “Migratory Routes Map.” frontex.europa.eu/trends-and-routes/migratory-routes-map/

FRONTEX. “Western Balkan Route.” frontex.europa.eu/trends-and-routes/western-balkan-route/

Smith, Oli. “’Don’t come to Europe’ Austria takes out ADVERTS begging Afghan migrants to stay at home,” Daily Express, March 1, 2016. www.express.co.uk/news/world/648941/Refugee-crisis-Europe-Austria-ADVERTS-begging-Afghan-migrants-stay-home