Dominoes Fall on Europe's Immigrants

5 MINS READSep 14, 2015 | 22:09 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Amid the European Union's struggle to come up with a comprehensive plan to address the migration crisis, Germany briefly reintroduced controls along its border with Austria late Sunday. According to German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, the controls were meant to "bring some order to the entry of refugees" and would "initially" affect only Austria, suggesting that Germany could extend controls to its borders with other countries. The decision created a domino effect that puts additional pressure on the free movement of people in Europe, one of the foundational principles of the European Union.

De Maiziere's announcement, timely released before a summit of EU interior ministers to debate policies to address the immigration crisis, means that Berlin has decided to send a message to other EU countries, its citizens and future migrants. By temporarily closing its border, Germany is telling central and eastern European governments that they should cooperate with the relocation of asylum seekers. Countries that are transit countries — namely Slovakia and Hungary — for most of the immigrants seeking wealthier locations in Western Europe can decide not to participate in EU plans to address the migration crisis. However, if Germany closes its borders, the transit countries become de facto countries of destination for the asylum seekers. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe have said they will take extra asylum seekers but oppose a plan to introduce mandatory quotas of immigrants.

The consequences of Germany's move are already being felt in Europe. Soon after Berlin announced the temporary imposition of border controls, the Austrian government said it would tighten border checks with Hungary. Slovakia, in turn, reintroduced controls at its borders with Austria and Hungary. Finally, Hungary said it would strengthen border controls starting Tuesday. These actions are meant to stop the Balkan route, which takes immigrants entering the union from Greece, through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, to Austria and Germany. Even if these measures are temporary and technically allowed by the Schengen treaty (which eliminated border controls among member states) they are progressively undermining the agreement.

Berlin's decision is also an attempt to appease domestic concerns about other recent policies made by the German government. As the migration crisis escalated, Germany made fast and often surprising pronouncements to take a larger number of asylum seekers. Though opinion polls suggest most people support the government's actions, in recent days there have been questions about whether Berlin was doing too much too quickly.

German officials repeatedly said that the decision to accept an unlimited number of Syrians would not affect the country's policy of zero deficit, instead, it would strengthen Germany's workforce. But the conservative media and politicians, including some members of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, are beginning to express concern about the economic, social and political ramifications of a massive increase in foreigners. Pressure from Bavaria — Germany's wealthy southern region, which is ruled by the Christian Social Union, a sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union — influenced Berlin to temporarily introduce border controls.

As the euphoria of solidarity related to the refugee crisis starts to die down, questions will emerge. In the coming weeks, Germany will probably decide to soften some of its recent measures. We have already seen some early signs of this; for instance, Berlin plans to no longer give cash to asylum seekers, but vouchers that could be exchanged for food or clothes. Berlin is also trying to deport people who do not qualify for asylum faster, probably to convince future immigrants that Berlin is not pursuing a policy of open borders.

Germany's acceptance of all applications coming from Syria, even those from people currently in other EU member states, also severely weakened the so-called Dublin system, according to which migrants applying for asylum do so in the EU country of entry. The European Union had applied the Dublin system selectively; countries such as Italy and Greece fingerprinted only a fraction of the asylum seekers entering the European Union through their borders. But Germany's announcement was the first time a country openly bypassed the Dublin regulations. The Hungarian government has accused Berlin of creating a greater incentive for migrants that has only exacerbated the crisis. German authorities are probably starting to worry about the broader implications of this move as well.

When EU interior ministers met on Monday, they discussed plans to relocate asylum seekers across member states and to open refugee camps in countries such as Italy and Greece. Broader measures, like introducing a system to automatically distribute migrants fleeing future crises, will not be discussed until October. The migration crisis has reached a point where EU leaders understand that they have to do something. Many of the proposals recently made by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will probably be approved, even if some, like the automatic relocation of immigrants, could be toned down substantially.

However, the European Union is far from agreeing on a common policy on asylum. As long as regulations change from country to country, migrants will create internal as well as bilateral problems for Europe. In Germany, for example, refugees are allowed to work after three months, while in France they have to wait a year. In Sweden, asylum policies are much friendlier than in Denmark. These differences, along with the uneven rates of unemployment across the European Union, will shape migratory movements in Europe and result in some countries being destination states while others are transit states.

The European Union is unlikely to introduce a substantial reform in its asylum policies. Without a comprehensive plan, Europe will continue reacting to events, triggering more domino effects as countries take uncoordinated unilateral steps to protect their interests. The main threat to the free movement of people in Europe is that emergency measures could become the new normal, progressively weakening the Schengen agreement to the point it becomes unrecognizable, just like the Dublin system.

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