European Union Faces Uphill Battle In Fight To Help Refugees

The EU is "not in a good place."

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker held nothing back during his state of the union speech Wednesday, proposing a quota system to redistribute refugees across 22 of the European Union's 28 member states.

But the plan's effectiveness is still uncertain.

Juncker urged the bloc to unify around a moral obligation in a 38-minute tirade. “There is not enough Europe in this union,” he said. “And there is not enough union in this union. We have to change this. And we have to change this now.”

Members of the Commission, the EU's executive body, hope that the horrifying events that have transpired this summer -- 71 refugees suffocated in a truck in Austria, thousands of people camped out near the Budapest train station because they were refused entry onto trains, the harrowing drowning of a young Syrian boy on his way to Italy -- will push member states to show support for the plan. 

Yet the plan's limitations make it difficult to accept blindly.

Juncker has dubbed the plan the "second emergency mechanism"-- he originally proposed a mechanism for relocating 40,000 people in May. The new plan adds 120,000, with the aim to relocate 160,000 people from Greece, Hungary and Italy to other EU states.

This proposal is glaringly modest when compared to the number of people in need of assistance. "Although the desire is to distribute 160,000 migrants, this figure is already insufficient as the number of migrants continue to arrive to Europe," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Germany alone expects to receive up to 800,000 people by the end of the year. Germany's vice-chancellor dubbed the Juncker plan a "drop in the ocean." More than 100,000 people were detected along EU borders just last month, according to Frontex, Europe's migration monitoring service.

The quota plan is, however, "just one component of a package of proposals that have been put forth," said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, assistant director of the Migration Policy Institute's International Program. "It's basically designed to be an emergency measure to alleviate pressure felt by front-line states," meaning that it will eventually need to be supplemented by a more robust, longer-term strategy.

We Europeans should remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President

Juncker also plans to use a mandatory distribution formula to determine relocation figures for each country. Nations that are unable to take in refugees will have to contribute 0.002 percent of their GDP to finance other countries' efforts.

France, Spain and Germany are slated to accept the most refugees and would receive 6,000 euros per person under the plan for relocation assistance.

Italy, Greece and Hungary -- the primary countries that serve as places of transit for refugees -- would be given a budget of 500 euros per person for transportation.

Experts fear that the sheer costs of such a plan will render it ineffective. "No European government has anticipated the costs of resettling 160,000 migrants amid a very austere budget environment," Conley said. "This may re-prioritize development aid and defense budget priorities, reducing Europe's policy effectiveness."

In addition, there's a top-down directive for countries to improve their own infrastructure to lessen the burden on the state. "The help being offered to these frontline countries is contingent on them putting in place structural reforms to improve the capacity of their asylum systems," Banulescu-Bogdan explained. Given that there's already a clause in the plan for countries incapable of contributing, it's clear that expectations for participation are low.

And these strains on costs and infrastructure would only be exacerbated by the series of budget cuts enacted across many Mediterranean states in recent months, spurred by the economic downturn.

A migrant woman holds her child as they cross the border between Greece and Macedonia near the town of Gevgelija on Sept. 10,
A migrant woman holds her child as they cross the border between Greece and Macedonia near the town of Gevgelija on Sept. 10, 2015. Germany warned that an EU plan to distribute 160,000 new arrivals among member states was a mere 'drop in the ocean', but it faces stiff opposition from eastern members who say they will not accept binding quotas from Brussels.

Experts also worry that pitting state sovereignty against EU mandates will endanger the survival of the political and economic union. In particular, the tremendous strain the crisis has put on the Schengen system, which allows for free movement across 22 of the EU's 28 member states, may spell the end of open borders.

"Juncker is attempting to craft a European policy but border control is the last bastion of sovereignty," Conley said. "The 28 EU countries, with vocal and growing anti-immigrant parties, are loath to this transfer of authority to Brussels."

"The failure to provide solidarity to these states at this moment will have serious implications for the functioning of the EU as a whole," added Banulescu-Bogdan. "It may potentially erode the Schengen area."

Some countries have already tried to bypass directives from EU leadership. Hungary is intent on closing off its borders; it is nearing completion of a 110-mile-long barbed wire fence along its border with Serbia. On Thursday, the Hungarian army began military exercises to patrol the border.

Soldiers of the Hungarian army and police officers stand at the rail tracks at the Hungarian-Serbian border near Roszke on Se
Soldiers of the Hungarian army and police officers stand at the rail tracks at the Hungarian-Serbian border near Roszke on Sept. 11, 2015.

Because the deal "addresses the acute short-term need" faced by refugees fleeing war and persecution, Banulescu-Bogdan said, it leaves out the masses of people who come to the EU for economic reasons and don't qualify as refugees. Most of them come from the Balkan countries; in Kosovo, the youth unemployment rate is about 60 percent.

Central European countries will continue to struggle with large numbers of economic migrants traveling through their borders via the "Balkan route." Out of the 200,000 asylum requests that Germany has received so far in 2015, more than 40 percent came from the western Balkans.

Juncker did, however, outline a regulation to establish a common list of "safe countries of origin." People coming from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey would eventually be privy to a speedier asylum application process.

Officials will meet on Monday to consider Juncker's proposal at a meeting led by the home affairs minister. In the meantime, foreign ministers of Germany and Luxembourg met with their Central and Eastern EU counterparts on Friday for preliminary discussions. 

At its core, Juncker's solution remains a short-term one. "We need to be discussing more long-term solutions" that go beyond the territorial asylum system, said Banulescu-Bogdan, such as resettlement and increasing livelihood opportunities across the region.

When the Commission does eventually look to the longer term, xenophobia may continue to infuse policy decisions. "Europe has historically embraced more ethnic than civic approaches to nationhood, unlike the United States, and that is part of the reason immigration is proving so difficult," Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, told the Council on Foreign Relations. In many European countries, the relationship between Muslim minorities and the rest of the population remains strained.