Increasing migratory pressures on EU Member States have been threatening European solidarity since the beginning of 2015. The worsening of refugees’ conditions and the difficulties experienced by receiving countries have led European institutions to implement a number of measures aimed at easing refugee flows to Europe and preventing the exacerbation of migratory tensions. The most disputed of these measures is the emergency relocation mechanism, also known as the refugee quota system.

In Spring 2015 the gravity of the refugee crisis pushed the Union to attempt an overhaul of its asylum rules, and notably the “Dublin regulation” over asylum claims. The first action in this direction came in April 2015, in the wake of the boat disaster that killed 800 people in the Mediterranean Sea, when the Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council approved a 10-point action plan, highlighting the need to consider “options for an emergency relocation mechanism”. The first concrete proposal to use the emergency response mechanism was put forward by the European Commission in May 2015, under Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, concerning Member States confronting emergency situations. This proposal included the relocation of 40,000 people from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, as well as the resettlement of 20,000 from outside the EU to member countries. Notwithstanding fierce opposition from a number of member states, as the number of asylum-seekers in Europe rose above 100,000, Jean-Claude Juncker appeared to be strongly committed to finding a new way to admit and distribute refugees in the EU, as he remarked in his 2015 State of the Union Speech.

After weeks of disputes, on 22 September 2015 the EU Interior Ministers approved a plan for relocating 120,000 refugees across the continent over two years, outvoting Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Czech Republic, which opposed the proposal. Yet, the implementation of the plan proved extremely slow and was procrastinated after the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, as other countries, such as Poland, started assuming a more anti-immigration stance. In February 2016 the EU also tried to put a brake on refugee flows by approving a €3 billion deal with Turkey in exchange for Ankara ensuring that fewer refugees venture out towards Europe. However, throughout the year very small progress has been made and the relocation plan has fallen well short of the expectations so far, as only 5,651 asylum-seekers have been relocated from Greece and Italy to other European countries as of September 2016. This scenario is also exacerbated by the increasing tensions between Brussels and Ankara, which cast doubt upon the sustainability of the EU-Turkey refugee deal.


In order to understand these developments, it is important to observe the international divides that have emerged on this issue. On the one hand, the strongest input for the adoption of a refugee quota system in September 2015 was given by the German leadership: the promise by German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel that his country was ready to give a safe haven to 500,000 asylum seekers proved crucial to overcome France’s initial reluctance and create a core group of countries addressing the refugee crisis. On the other hand, Southern European countries, especially Italy and Greece, have constantly tried to raise the attention on their need for this plan. Both countries have ended up assuming a conflictual stance against European institutions: Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas has recently complained about the delays in the application of the relocation plan, while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi strongly criticized the outcome of September 2016 Bratislava Summit for failing to provide new answers to deal with the mass influx of migrants arriving in Europe.

Another source of conflict is the delicate situation of the asylum seekers trying to reach Great Britain through the Channel Tunnel, who find themselves stuck at the French border in the notorious “Jungle” camp in Calais. In August 2015 France and Britain signed a deal aimed at preventing undocumented migrants entering the Tunnel and reinforcing police controls at both sides. From that point on the management of the Jungle has become an ever more sensitive topic, with both French and British authorities trying to shift the burden onto each other. However, following the victory of the UK’s Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, Xavier Bertrand, the president of the Hauts-de-France region (in which Calais is), asked the British government to begin a renegotiation process.

Also, as part of his bid to become the Republican presidential candidate in 2017, Nicolas Sarkozy has called for the UK to take greater responsibilities and to create a hotspot for migrants hoping to cross the Channel. In August 2016, however, the British government won a legal appeal against the decision of a British immigration tribunal to let four Syrian refugees living in the Jungle camp to come to Britain, which could have constituted an important legal precedent for the relocation of asylum seekers from France. As the number of people living in the Jungle is now at least 7,000 and as François Hollande calls for the dismantlement of the camp, it is reasonable to expect this issue to be prominent in future Brexit negotiations.

Finally, the greatest problems for the development of a truly European migratory agenda come from the EU’s Eastern flank, and notably from the so-called Visegrad Four (V4): the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has opposed the EU quota plan from the start and decided to take legal action against it before the European Court of Justice. Speaking at the Bratislava Summit, he added that the quota system is “politically finished” and, together with other V4 leaders, he promoted instead the principle of “flexible solidarity”, whereby countries that do not want to take migrants could contribute to the EU’s migration policy with other means, e.g. financially, with equipment or manpower.

Even more controversial is the Hungarian stance. The country has been strongly attacked by other EU Member States, among which Nordic countries, Luxembourg and Austria for blatantly refusing to comply with the Dublin regulation principle that refugees must make an asylum application in the country where they first enter the EU. After backing Slovakia’s legal challenge against the relocation mechanism, in May 2016 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced a referendum on the quota system, in order to gain further leverage to oppose the relocation plan. Against expectations, the turnout to the October 2 referendum fell well short of the 50% threshold, which voided the vote. While Orbán made it clear that he will ignore the low turnout and soon propose a constitutional amendment tackling the refugees issue, the unexpected result of the referendum might revive projects for a fairer and more sustainable distribution of asylum seekers in Europe.


Even if the result of the Hungarian referendum might seem encouraging, European institutions are currently very cautious about a relaunch of the emergency relocation mechanism. Rather, the most likely policy outcome in the near future seems to be a return to the status quo of the Dublin regulation, with the paradox of Greece facing the prospect of receiving returning asylum seekers from other EU states. Thus, it is fair to say that European heads of state are playing a dangerous “chicken game”: while they try to minimize the national degree of refugee acceptance, they risk the worst common outcome, represented by the complete lack of centralized management.

The ever more precarious German leadership on the issue, given Angela Merkel’s domestic electoral concerns, certainly does not help. In this context, a new supranational agreement for refugee resettlement is, arguably, easier to materialize at the global rather than European level. Indeed, Barack Obama has recently announced that a US-led coalition of 30 countries has collectively agreed to roughly double resettlement places for refugees, increase humanitarian aid for refugees by $4.5bn, provide education to an additional 1 million refugee children, and potentially improve access to legal work for another million adults. The events of the next weeks and months, beginning with the American presidential elections, will prove whether these propositions are tenable.

Photo Credits CC Liam-stoopdice

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