At the recent European Council meeting of EU heads of state and government held on 28-29 June, it became clear that in recent years, as a result of the changes in the public mood regarding migration and the domestic political developments in the member states embracing hardline immigration policies, the pro-immigrant forces that emphasize European values and look at the problem of illegal migration solely from a humanitarian perspective are in retreat.
The meeting was marked by the unprecedented public struggle between the German coalition partners, the CDU and the CSU, where the Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced by her Bavarian sister party to give up on her “slow but steady approach” to migration and fully support a stricter immigration policy. The mini-summit, which was hastily called before the Council meeting on 24 June without preparation and with the participation of 16 member states, was a desperate attempt by Merkel to convince her European partners to save the German coalition government. It became obvious that Merkel’s profound crisis of legitimacy strongly calls into question the German chancellor’s leading role in European politics.
Although the Western media emphasized the great compromise reached during the negotiations and the willingness of the member states to display solidarity, they have hidden the fact that the statements following the meeting and the resolution adopted at the EU summit demonstrate a paradigm shift in the responses to migration. Though many details are unclear with regards to its practical implementation, with its emphasis on the effective management of the EU’s external borders and the establishment of closed ‘controlled centers’, the meeting is considered to be the first to question the EU’s open border policy. This dramatic change is the remarkable political achievement of the Visegrád Group governments, which have represented a consistent position regarding illegal migration, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has brought dynamism to the V4, the conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and the Five Star Movement (M5S) – Northern League coalition government. Out of the 26 points of the final resolution, 12 are related to issues of migration that have been already raised and proposed by the V4.
The Western press has remained utterly silent about the fact that following the European refugee crisis in 2015, when the Hungarian border barrier was erected, the Hungarian Prime Minister was already emphasizing the priority of protecting the EU’s borders. He also proposed the setting up of reception centers for migrants outside the EU, something for which the EU leaders vehemently criticized the Hungarian government. Over the past three and a half years, the political weight of the Visegrád countries has been visibly strengthened. This was clear to see as the French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been impressively aspiring to fill the power vacuum following Merkel’s weakening positioning and who a couple of months ago threatened the Visegrád states with EU subsidy cuts for rejecting the mandatory refugee quotas, held independent migrant crisis talks convened at the initiative of the French party between the V4 and France ahead of the recent European Council meeting.
It can be considered as another success for the Visegrád countries that they have been capable of convincing their partners that the European systemic solution lies in the protection of external borders, not in a mandatory quota allocation mechanism, and that solidarity means more than the adoption of EU asylum seekers. Undoubtedly the biggest turning point of the resolution adopted at the EU summit is that stricter procedures could be created for the reception of refugees, which would result in the establishment of migration centers inside and outside the EU to assess refugee applications. Putting so-called ‘controlled centers’ on the agenda has broken a taboo, since exactly those facilities are the ones for which Hungary has been condemned by the EU for many years.
It may be also be viewed as a significant advancement that as a result of the firm stance against illegal migration taken by Italian PM Giuseppe Conte and the new Italian government, the focus of the new measures in the resolution has shifted to changing the regulation of international NGOs carrying out life-saving operations in the Mediterranean. The declared objective of the new measures is to either eliminate or at least reduce incentives for irregular migration to Europe and to end the flourishing human trafficking business. The Hungarian government has been arguing for years that NGOs working with human trafficking networks support migration and only encourage human traffickers, resulting with the departure and death of more people at sea.
Given that the EU’s rotating presidency plays a significant role in the development and practical implementation of concrete measures, the new Austrian presidency from 1 July indicates a decisive change of political direction, as Chancellor Kurz’s stated top priority is to combat illegal migration and human trafficking. However, the reform of the Dublin Regulation is still under way, meaning the retreating proimmigrant European elite wants to adopt political solutions appropriate to its interests before next year’s European Parliament election, which promises landslide changes in the political structure and the setting up of a new European Commission.