VoxEU Column EU institutions Europe's nations and regions

How Europe will fail to address the migration crisis in early 2016

The migrant crisis will continue to top headlines in 2016. This column takes a detailed look at the EU’s response to dealing with migration, concluding that everything points towards failure as the likely outcome. Unlike the most critical aspects of the Eurozone Crisis, the main drivers of the current migration emergency are external factors such as war. These circumstances are highly unlikely to change in the medium term. The hardball politics and threats that proved extraordinarily effective in coercing member states into accepting domestic political conditionality in return for financial aid during the Eurozone Crisis are doomed to fail when it comes to migration.

Following the ultimately overwhelming rejection by Greek voters of euro exit, the sudden rise in migrant inflows in the autumn quickly rose to the top of the European political agenda towards the end of 2015. Migration replaced Greece as the topic for special meetings of the EU Council in September (European Council 2015a) and November (2015b), which also included a meeting with Turkey (2015c). Migration was also top of the agenda for the regular EU Council meetings in October (2015d) and December (2015e), European justice and home affairs ministers replaced finance ministers in the media spotlight (2015f), and the European Commission presented a new reform package to allegedly solve the crisis (European Commission 2015a).

Yet, reminiscent of the futile efforts by European leaders early in the Eurozone Crisis, this initial flurry of political and diplomatic initiatives will likely not solve the dangerous political crisis currently facing Europe. Left unaddressed, the migration crisis is as politically potent as the Eurozone Crisis itself in its capacity to undermine current mainstream politics in the region.

Yet, as in 2010-12, publics will in all probability have to steel themselves for an even deeper crisis to force the political wheels of Europe into motion towards solutions possible only in the direst of emergencies. I made a comprehensive set of such solution proposals with the introduction of a European Mobility and Migration Union in early December 2015 (Kirkegaard 2015).

The state of play in the migration crisis response at the end of 2015

The EU Council conclusions on migration from 17 December 2015 correctly stated that “for the integrity of Schengen to be safeguarded it is indispensable to regain control over the external borders” (European Council 2015g). Leaders, however, completely failed to agree on measures to actually achieve this outcome. As pointed out in the latest European Commission state of play review (European Commission 2016a), member states still do not contribute adequate personnel to the existing common European border management institutions, Frontex (European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the EU) and EASO (European Asylum Support Office). Frontline states – Italy1 and Greece2 – especially, hence remain largely on their own with respect to controlling what in the Schengen Area is a common European external border.

  • Of 750 personnel requested, even in mid-January 2016 EU member states have only pledged 447.
  • This perpetuates the current situation, where registration and fingerprinting of new arrivals remains partial.
  • Given the obvious national security implications, EU leaders’ lack of immediate commitment of adequate new member state resources is concerning.

The deal with Turkey: Lack of trust undermines effectiveness

The EU in late November further struck a deal with Turkey (European Council 2015h) to try to control the EU’s external border by getting its government’s help to stem the flow of refugees into especially Greece in return for up to €3bn in financial aid and a host of other political incentives offered to Ankara.

How this deal will be implemented, however, remains unclear, as trust and verification issues loom large. A reduction in migrant inflows through Turkey to about 4,000 per day in December (from 5-6,000 per day in November) has been registered (2015i), though it is uncertain whether worse seasonal weather or actual Turkish government measures can be attributed. As Figure 1 from the European Commission (2015b) illustrates, the effects on the ground of the agreement with Turkey have to date not been self-evident.

Figure 1. Daily inflows of migrants and refugees into Greece

Source: Frontex's "Daily Regional Overview" reports.

Unless new concrete Turkish government actions lead to additional significant reductions in migrant inflows into the EU, it seems implausible that member states will actually release any of the promised €3 billion to Ankara. Given how Turkey – at considerable fiscal expense – already hosts millions of Syrian refugees, a lack of up-front EU cash is highly unlikely to incentivise the Erdogan administration to take effective actions in the short term. Lack of mutual trust hence creates a classic chicken-and-egg situation between the EU and Turkey, suggesting that the current bilateral agreement will likely not yield concrete results in the near term. Only direct engagement by the top EU leaders with Turkish president Erdogan can likely in 2016 change the status quo.3

The hotspot focus

A key component of the EU response to the migration crisis has been the focus on hotspots (e.g. supposedly temporary refuge camps in the frontier countries of Italy and Greece), relocation and returns. Given how the EU Council Conclusions merely calls for more urgent implementation of this strategy, its current failure will continue in 2016. The glaring problems are numerical, logistical and political.

Numbers wise, it is apparent that a hypothetical solution that even in principle covers only a fraction of the actual problem is in reality no solution at all. Up to 160,000 refugees can be potentially relocated among EU and Schengen member states, despite almost 1.1 million asylum seekers arriving in the 28 EU member states from January to November 2015, of which over 400,000 were from evidently war-torn Syria and Iraq alone (UNHCR 2015). Frontex similarly estimates that approximately 880,000 refugees arrived in just Greece and Italy from January to early December 2015.

  • Under current policy, Greece and Italy would – in the case of a ‘successful’ EU migration response where the 160,000 relocation target is met – be implicitly expected to continue to host over 80% of the actual number of new arrivals.

This is an obviously totally untenable situation, particularly in light of the fact that to date (mid-January 2016, see European Commission 2015c) just 272 migrants have actually been relocated to other EU countries.

Despite the EU Council Conclusions noting that hotspot construction must be accelerated, it should therefore be no surprise that Athens and Rome have to date appeared reluctant.

  • As of mid-January 2016, only one of a planned six hotspots was fully operational in Italy and one of five planned in Greece (European Commission 2016b).

Critiques of the lack of Greek or Italian hotspot camp construction from Northern European non-frontier states is therefore both misguided and self-serving. It is clear that they would prefer the vast majority of refugees to remain incarcerated in Greece and Italy - something the governments here of course well understand will be a near political certainty, should adequate hotspot and shelter facilities be built by them in the first place.

  • A more basic logistical problem with hotspots is the fact that that almost none of the arrivals wishes to remain in Italy or Greece, but they instead want to continue onwards to Germany, Sweden or other EU members.

Hence any such hotspots camps would have to be de facto prison camps, equipped and guarded to prevent newly arrived refugees from simply slipping out in the middle of the night to continue their journey north. Unless refugees’ own preferences for their final destination are somehow changed – something only far reaching changes in national regulations or populist political sentiments can likely engineer, the hotspot strategy appears futile and fundamentally at odds with basic European values.

The EU Commission’s proposals for, among other things, a new European Border and Coast Guard (European Commission 2015d) are correct in terms of aspiration, but suffer from the inevitable constraints of originating from an organisation (e.g. the EU Commission) without its own fiscal resources and whose budget is already largely fixed until 2020. The European Border and Coast Guard proposal to establish a 1,500-strong pool of experts to be deployed in under three days by 2020 (!) is hardly a credible external border control organisation, recalling how in the ongoing emergency almost half of that number of Frontex/EASO positions are currently unfilled in Greece and Italy.

Likewise, is the proposed new right of intervention of the EU’s Coast Guard potentially against the wishes of member states, if the Coast Guard deemed the member state to have failed to properly manage an external border? It may on paper and in constitutional law terms be a big step towards, for the first time, equipping an EU institution with elements of a member states’ monopoly on violence. But in reality, the envisioned Coast Guard will never have the manpower, equipment or institutional capacity to secure an external EU border unless it does so at the explicit request of, and in assistance of, the member state in question. Imagining the Coast Guard as some sort of invading army that swoops in to ‘do Europe’s border control business’ is hardly credible, especially as it must be presumed that any EU Coast Guard personnel would have to adhere to the national laws of the member state in question.

And the European financial commitment to credibly carry out these tasks simply isn’t there. As I noted in my December 2015 proposal for an migratory and mobility union, external border control is quite costly – the US federal government spends up to €30bn annually on external border control tasks. In comparison, the proposed Coast Guard is expected to be implemented through an EU budget allocation of just €239 million in 2016, rising to €270 million in 2017 and adding 602 positions by 2020. Even considering the fact that member states will of course continue to devote substantial national resources towards external border control, such miserly funding for a flagship European policy proposal to address a critically important problem cannot credibly hope to make a difference.

What might be next in 2016?

Unlike the most critical aspects of the Eurozone crisis, the main drivers of the current migration emergency are external factors, such as demographics, war and abject poverty in the regions bordering Europe – circumstances that are highly unlikely to change materially in even the medium term. What this means is that the hardball politics and threats that proved extraordinarily effective in coercing member state governments into accepting domestic political conditionality in return for financial aid during the Eurozone Crisis are doomed to fail when it comes to migration. Syrian refugees contemplating fleeing to Europe via Greece are just not going to care much about whether Greece is being threatened with suspension from the Schengen Area by the other member states unhappy about how the Greek government is living up to its previous commitments.

The key political driver of the migration crisis is the level of actual inflows into Europe. Here, historical asylum data suggest that inflows seasonally decline from Q4 to Q1 in any given year, likely due to adverse weather, are relative stable from Q1 to Q2, and then rise significantly from Q2 to Q3. If this pattern proves to be the case also in 2016, relatively little political activity should likely be expected on this issue early in the year, as during the Dutch EU presidency EU leaders will comfort themselves with the fact that at least things aren’t as bad as in the autumn of 2015. Only once such complacency is punctured by renewed rises in migrant inflows in the summer of 2016 does it appear possible that Europe may politically reconsider its current inadequate approach.

At that point in time, when more effective solutions will likely have to be launched to counter public dissatisfaction, it will likely become clear that migration – given its obvious political potency and difference in degrees to which countries emphasise it and their historical experiences – is simply not a political topic fit for action at the 28 member state level. Instead, necessary solutions to the migration crisis will have to be initiated among a smaller group of like-minded member states. As I have discussed in my proposals, such solutions will have to include at least partial surrender of national sovereignty over border control issues, the establishment of an entirely new comprehensive common border control and coast guard organisation in Europe, and agreement to pool very substantial new fiscal resources to pay for this at the European level. German Finance Minister Schäble’s recent proposal for a new pan-European fuel surcharge (Suddeutsche Zeitung 2016) to pay for the current refugee crisis in Europe is a potentially very positive development, suggesting that the realistic financing needs of the current emergency are gradually being grasped at the highest political levels in Europe.

What role the synchronised French and German election cycles in 2017 will play is an open question. Certainly, the political window for incumbent governments to do something effective about migration at the European level will, by mid-2016, be rapidly closing. Hopefully, the prospects of either severely undermining decades of European integration or facing national electorates politically naked in 2017 will generate the political will in Paris and Berlin. A far-reaching Franco-German summer initiative in 2016 would be sure to be quickly joined by at least the Mediterranean EU members and the Benelux countries. And were it – as my proposals suggest – to be replete with the surrender of relevant national sovereignty, commitment of adequate national fiscal resources and the vision to establish a credible common European external border control organisation, it would offer Europe the best option to solve the migration crisis next year.


European Commission (2015a), available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-6327_en.htm?locale=EN.

European Commission (2015c), available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-65_en.htm.

European Commission (2015d), available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-6327_en.htm.

European Commission (2016a), available at http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/press-material/docs/state_of_play_-_relocation_en.pdf.

European Commission (2016b), available at http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/press-material/docs/state_of_play_-_hotspots_en.pdf.

European Council (2015a), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/09/23-statement-informal-meeting/.

European Council (2015b), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/international-summit/2015/11/11-12/.

European Council (2015c), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/11/29-eu-turkey-meeting-statement/.

European Council (2015d), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/european-council/2015/10/15-euco-conclusions/.

European Council (2015e), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/12/17-euco-conclusions-migration/.

European Council (2015f), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/migratory-pressures/history-migratory-pressures/.

European Council (2015g), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/12/17-euco-conclusions-migration/.

European Council (2015h), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/11/29-eu-turkey-meeting-statement/.

European Council (2015i), available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/12/pdf/20151216-Migration-Presidency-Report-Implementation_pdf/.

Kirkegaard, J (2015), “Toward a European migration and mobility union”, Peterson Institute for International Economics, December, available at http://www.piie.com/publications/pb/pb15-23.pdf.

Suddeutsche Zeitung (2016), 16 January, available at http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/reaktionen-auf-vorstoss-des-finanzministers-schaeuble-vorschlag-stoesst-auf-heftige-kritik-1.2821180.

UNHCR (2015), available at http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/Monthly-Data-Jan-November-2015.zip.


1 The European Commission estimates that Italy needs about 60 additional Frontex officers. See http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/securing-eu-borders/legal-documents/docs/communication_-_progress_report_on_the_implementation_of_the_hotspots_in_italy_annex_en.pdf.

2 The European Commission estimates that Greece needs about 600 additional Frontex officers, see http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/securing-eu-borders/legal-documents/docs/communication_-_progress_report_on_the_implementation_of_the_hotspots_in_greece_annex_en.pdf.

3 The fact that Turkey was at the November summit represented instead by Prime Minister Davutoğlu was an ill omen. It was in a way reciprocated by the EU Council Conclusions, which rather than immediately committing the new resources to Turkey instead tasked COREPER “to rapidly conclude its work on how to mobilise the 3 billion euro for the Turkey Refugee Facility” - e.g. hardly a priority.

5,879 Reads