THE sheer dithering cluelessness of the European Union’s leaders, faced with an unexpected surge in the number of migrants seeking refugee status in EU countries, challenges all our previous definitions of incompetence. A new standard has been set.
All of a sudden, in July, the main stream of refugees arriving in Europe switched from the trans-Mediterranean track out of Libya to the Aegean Sea, where the crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands just offshore is less than one-tenth as far. People are drowning on this Aegean route too, but far fewer of them.
They don’t want to stay in Greece, of course – and although Greece is part of the Schengen area, which abolishes border controls between most EU members, it has no common border with any other Schengen member. Migrants wishing to claim refugee status in some richer EU country must therefore trek on up through the Balkans, seeking to reach some other Schengen country like Hungary or Slovenia.
They don’t want to stay in those countries either, but once they are in any Schengen country other than Greece they can travel on freely to their real destinations, usually Germany, Sweden or France. Or at least they could until about two weeks ago. Then the panic started.
Heading up from Greece, the migrants first reached Macedonia (not a Schengen country). It tried to protect its border for a while, then realised they just wanted to cross Macedonia and let them all through. Serbia (also not a Schengen country) did the same – which delivered them to the southern border of Hungary.
Hungary has been building a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along its southern frontier to keep asylum-seekers out, and it used considerable violence against the mostly Syrian refugees at first. But then Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, wearing her Lady Bountiful cloak, announced that Germany would accept as many as wanted to come.
So Hungary opened its border and the refugees surged through, on their way to Austria and thence to Germany. That lasted precisely two days. Then Merkel panicked at the numbers arriving in Germany and “temporarily” closed the border with Austria. So to stop refugees from piling up in Austria, Vienna closed the border with Hungary – and Hungary shut its border with Serbia for the same reason.
Nothing daunted, the refugees stuck on the Hungarian border turned left and headed for Croatia (not a Schengen member). Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic declared that the government was “entirely ready to receive or direct those people where they want to go, which is obviously Germany or Scandinavian countries.” He knew they really just wanted to cross Croatia to get into Slovenia or Hungary (which ARE Schengen members).
But 24 hours later the Croatian government, shocked by the numbers that were coming, shut its border too. Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said his country was “absolutely full” and told the migrants: “Don’t come here any more. Stay in refugee centres in Serbia and Macedonia and Greece. This is not the road to Europe.”
Meanwhile Hungary declared that it was extending its razor-wire fence to cover the border with Croatia as well, and Slovenia began to stop trains coming from Croatia to search for refugees. There will be a summit this week at which EU governments will try to come up with a coherent common policy, but don’t hold your breath while waiting for the good news.
The EU probably will sort it out eventually, because the numbers are not really all that huge. Around 500,000 migrants (most of whom will claim refugee status) have entered the European Union this year, which is only one percent of the EU’s population.
It is not beyond the wit of the EU’s leaders to work out legal ways to send false claimants home, to settle the refugees already in Europe, and to strengthen the EU’s external border controls. Some lasting damage may be done to the EU’s ideals in the process, but for most practical purposes life in Europe will return to normal – for a while.
However, this refugee crisis is only a rehearsal for the main event, which will probably arrive in 10 to 20 years’ time. It will be driven by global warming, which will devastate agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa and produce a five- or tenfold increase in the number of refugees heading for Europe.
This is not what might happen if the world’s governments don’t make the right deal at the climate summit in Paris in December. This is what almost certainly will happen even if they do make the right deal now. A considerable amount of warming is already locked into the system no matter what we do about the climate now – enough to produce that kind of refugee flow in the future.
There is not the slightest sign that EU policy-makers have taken this on board. If they are taken by surprise again, the European Union may collapse. So may several southern European states.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent foreign correspondent.