By Przemysław Osiewicz
The most recent EU summit, in June 2018, only proved that the EU’s member states do not share any common long-term perspective on migration from the Middle East to Europe.
This lack of cohesion, as well as a lack of substantial cooperation with the U.S., are the best recipe for a humanitarian disaster in 2019, one that Europe is unlikely to be able to cope with without financial assistance from the U.S.
Like President Donald Trump, some European leaders hold tough stances on migration issues. Others are drifting in that direction. The German government may soon introduce new regulations that would end the country’s policy of accepting new migrants as well as deport those who had sought asylum in other EU states before coming to Germany.
The new right-wing Italian government has already blocked the inflow of migrants or refugees to Italy. These moves will likely result in internal tensions and crises inside the EU, and will not significantly reduce the total number of people seeking refuge in Europe—refugees will simply change routes and try to enter via Spain or Greece.
Morocco, instead of Libya, may also face an upsurge in the flow of migrants from other African states.
In 2018, three years after the migration crisis began, the European Commission came to a conclusion similar to the original positions of the member states—including Poland and Hungary—that had been heavily criticized for their reluctance to accept the refugee quota system.
The commission suggested that refugees should receive EU assistance in refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan rather than be allowed to enter and stay in the EU.
The EU’s main players, including Germany and France, seem to have accepted the Polish and Hungarian narrative that potential refugees should receive assistance in countries like Turkey and Jordan rather than be permitted to stay.
Is such an attitude really helpful and efficient? Recent research has only proved that such a strategy does not stop refugees from attempting to reach European shores.
This month the EU may face another migration crisis as thousands of African refugees try to reach the shores of Spain through North Africa before the beginning of winter storms in the Mediterranean.
In addition, while a recent deal has averted a regime offensive in the Syrian province of Idlib, it is possible that another Syrian migrant wave could be around the corner. As Jordanian authorities have already declared that they will not accept any more refugees, there is no doubt that another wave of Syrians would move north and attempt to reach Europe via Turkey.
However, it should be emphasized that fewer migrants have been coming from the Middle East to Europe since 2017; the majority come from other Asian and African states and simply cross the region on their way to Europe. In this case, Turkey and Libya are often used as transit corridors.
EU officials should not be satisfied with a lower number of migrants coming to Europe in 2018. On Oct. 5, the number of dead and missing was estimated to be 1,772. This is a result of the intransigent position of Italy, which has not even allowed would-be refugees to be rescued off its coast.
The policies of Giuseppe Conte’s government, a coalition between two traditionally xenophobic and anti-immigrant political parties, have led to only 20,000 refugees reaching Italian shores this year—a stark decrease from the almost 120,000 refugees that arrived in 2017.
At the same time, however, the number of immigrants registered in Spain in 2018 rose to more than 42,000 from 20,000 in 2017. It is obvious that immigrants still seek refuge in Europe; they have simply changed their main route.
The crisis is not over. It has just been postponed to summer 2019.
Another wave of migration in 2019 will not only cause problems for the EU, but also for its allies. Any tensions between the EU and Turkey over a potential increase in migrants would certainly affect NATO as well as the U.S.’s Middle East strategy.
It seems very likely that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will ask Brussels for more money and that EU leaders may not be as generous.
Indeed, a visit by Erdogan to Berlin last week saw the Turkish leader return with little to show in the way of financial assistance from its biggest trading partner in Europe.
Whether this will undermine the current refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey has yet to be seen.
This issue may also once again reveal all of the internal divisions and tensions in the EU. Member states in Central and Eastern Europe still refuse to accept their quotas of immigrants, and are even less likely to do it voluntarily, as suggested during the EU summit in June.
Although Trump seems to welcome internal problems and divisions within the EU, his administration should consider playing a more active role in the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Lack of unity and solidarity among Western states can only worsen the humanitarian crisis and help their opponents, including jihadi groups.
One of the potential solutions may be to increase financial assistance for the Middle Eastern countries that have already accepted the largest number of refugees in the region as well as transit states. Among these are Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Libya.
The EU migration problem will not resolve itself. An institutional and well-thought-out approach is needed. One such approach might be a high-level EU-U.S. summit on migration issues that would include representatives of all Middle Eastern states.
Important is that these representatives be treated as partners, not potential customers—like the case of EU’s negotiations with Turkey. European heads of state should also stop exploiting the migration crisis in the Mediterranean for reasons of political expediency.
The U.S. is not immune from this crisis. Indeed, the Trump administration may soon face a similar challenge: Syria and Libya are far away from U.S. shores, but Venezuela is not.
Photo: Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Przemysław Osiewicz is an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, specializing in EU policy towards the MENA region, Iran, and Turkey, a Fulbright Senior Award Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., from 2016-2017.