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Migration

A Balancing Act: How Europe’s Response on Refugees can be Strengthened

By Didem Akbaş , Franziska Brantner

Despite the recent proliferation of strategies and instruments, a common European approach is lacking in response to the arrival of refugees on an almost unprecedented scale. But what responses are being prescribed by Greens who hold office in places heavily affected by these developments? Didem Akbaş asked Franziska Brantner, a member of the German Bundestag, how Greens there view the issue and what paths they are suggesting, or already taking, towards a humane response in line with Green principles.

Didem Akbaş: Our Europe without borders is in danger. Will Europe’s future be decided by its refugee policy?Will the end of Schengen also mean the end of Europe?

Franziska Brantner: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that if Schengen collapses then so does the European Union. At the same time, the row over Schengen is an expression of multi-layered and deeply rooted divisions within the EU, and should be viewed in the context of other crises and problems: the economic and social crises; the rise of the extreme right in many EU countries; a measurable distrust among some of the citizenry vis-à-vis, to a certain extent, the self-perpetuating elites and their EU project; a possible Brexit; the misgivings of many over an emerging, hesitant and not entirely willing or even capable German hegemon; and, last but not least, the acute crises in the EU’s neighbourhood. This set of phenomena is eroding what constitutes the European Union, but I’m still hopeful that we’ll be able to save Schengen!

So what does that mean? Do we need internal or only external borders forEurope?

I hope not internal. The goal must remain not to have any borders inside the European Union. We have de facto borders externally, as not all countries are EU member states. These borders must be monitored – not so much because of refugees, but primarily in order to prevent illegal activities such as human trafficking, arms trafficking, etc. The question is therefore rather how we are going to handle these borders generally, and in particular how we will respond when refugees attempt to cross them. Hitherto, this has been mainly a matter for EU member states supported by Frontex. This system is neither European nor fair, and often operates in contravention to human rights standards and with a lack of democratic oversight from Frontex.

And how would you define border protection?

I can imagine a truly European border protection system. This would be very different from the current system, where we rely on individual EU countries and their graciously deployed border guards, who are then very difficult for parliaments to control. When mistakes occur, the blame is passed to the other participating country, and hardly any national parliaments are really concerned about monitoring what goes on at Frontex. Instead, there would be a truly European border agency with European personnel supervised by EU institutions, especially the European Parliament. This agency must have a clear mandate in line with human rights and fundamental values, as well as the ability to handle maritime emergencies and everything that goes with it. Moreover, this necessarily raises the question of the common asylum and immigration policies, which is precisely what ails Schengen: Dublin has been a failure because it was ineffectual from the beginning, and because the member states couldn’t agree on an alternative at the time.

So the root of all evil is the Dublin Regulation? What could a European replacement look like?

Dublin failed long ago, not because of us Greens, but because of reality. Now, all sides – Greens included – are struggling to come up with a follow-up regulation, such as what should replace Dublin? Clearly, we Greens think it should be a common allocation mechanism, but then it becomes controversial: what criteria will determine how refugees are allocated, and to what extent will the refugees themselves be able to decide where they want to go? What are the details of how this allocation will take place, for example, what will the reception and allocation centres on the borders look like, and what should their specific tasks be? Who will decide on asylum applications? National authorities, alone? And, last but not least, who will pay for all this and what will happen in those countries which do not wish to participate in the allocation formula?

In my opinion, we need reception and allocation centres which are organised and administered by the EU. These should be located at the external borders, where refugees would be registered and where they would remain until they are allocated to the member states. We need a strong EU asylum authority for just registration and allocation. Refugees’ preferences should be respected, but this cannot be the sole determinative criterion. After a certain amount of time, which will be defined by the Council, the refugees and immigrants in principle will fall under EU rules on freedom of movement anyway. But actually, a pan-European allocation of asylum seekers before asylum applications have been decided on also requires that all member countries implement at least the minimum standards of the existing common standards in asylum proceedings. That’s another weak point.

It’s really a tough struggle to come up with an allocation formula.

Yes, and we must also consider what will happen if it doesn’t work out right away. Should we proceed with individual countries – and in doing so, establish the precedent of an EU operating at different speeds? Should financial assistance be provided to those countries who are willing to admit more refugees in exchange for money? And in member states whose governments take a fundamentally restrictive, negative posture, might it make sense for the EU to support organisations that advocate for refugees or work with them, or if necessary, even to curtail these member states’ financial privileges?

Asylum and refugees are also part and parcel of Schengen. If a given country fails to confront these issues, this could also have consequences for its participation in Schengen. Should those who refuse to participate still enjoy the same rights and advantages of the Schengen Area? Or at some point do we have to say “There are no free riders”? These are difficult questions that we need to discuss collectively without apprehension or taboos.

So this brings us to European solidarity. Is this now the symbolic stress test between East and West, North and South?Eastern Europeans are sealing themselves off, and the Scandinavians are showing unprecedented rigidity.

It doesn’t help if the two sides are always just admonishing one another for being divisive. Frequently, there’s a political calculation behind such accusations, and it often doesn’t ring true, especially coming from Germany. We have long refused to replace Dublin with a system that reflects greater solidarity. And, for that matter, is Germany expressing solidarity by pressing ahead with Nord Stream II? For me, the question is rather whether we are still willing to seek common solutions and to forego national interests in order to achieve common goals of overriding importance. This in turn must lead to the question of what the competences of the various levels should be, and ultimately to that of how to bring about a better EU in which European citizens can reassert their emergent sovereign authority. Only then can we address how the burden is to be shared.

The challenge is to find the right tone in which to express necessary and justified criticism. One often has to walk a tightrope.

So the fact that Europe doesn’t speak with one voice comes down to the national interests that each country pursues for itself?

The goal of finding European solutions is often presented as a naïve endeavour. Such critics regard the EU as “incapable of taking action”, which, they assert, “can be observed on a daily basis”. This in turn reinforces the tendency not to act along European lines, which is, to a certain extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

European solutions require time, because they depend on achieving a balance of interests. The tumult into which the doomsday prophets are attempting to drive us impedes the formulation of considered, sustainable solutions. Even for us, it’s not always easy to campaign vehemently for European solutions in all areas when we know this can lead to a lowering of standards. I myself often have some doubt, for example, with respect to the allocation of refugees – people may ultimately be allocated to countries that do not meet the common minimum standards in asylum proceedings. Who will actually be implementing these?

For those of us who are pro-European, the challenge is to find the right tone in which to express necessary and justified criticism. One often has to walk a tightrope – criticising substantive decisions by the European Commission, Council or Parliament, while at the same time communicating a pro-European stance. Raising the flag for Europe is no easy task and one might not always succeed, but this must be the goal. I’m convinced that only an honest debate can win back people’s trust.

The catchphrase “simple solutions”brings to mind populists, anti-Europeans and right-wing populists. How do you view the strengthening of these groups?

It’s threatening, especially the pan-European convergence and effective collaboration against the allegedly “decadent West”, such as the convergence of the anti-intellectual, anti-European, racist, anti-feminist and homophobic, and the formation of joint movements, occasionally punctuated by radical religious Christian forces. Their effective use of new media as well as their targeted disinformation and misinformation have caused many citizens to be misled by the allure of simple answers and to buy into conspiracy theories. I find it particularly frightening that some of this originates in Russia or is stoked from there. Across Europe, conservatives are tending to run after the right-wing populists rather than confronting them. And the social democrats and socialists lack a clear position vis-à-vis the left-wing populist movements and would-be parties; they often don’t know how they should react.

We European Greens are the articulation of various historical, political and cultural influences arising from the West European student movement of 1968 (communist splinter groups, hippies, peace activists, feminists) as well as conservationists, regionalists, anti-capitalists, anti-communists, Third World solidarity, pro and anti-EU activists, Central and Eastern European post-1989 movements, liberal revolutionaries, etc. Some of our member parties have forty years of parliamentary experience, some have spent decades in government, a few Green mayors govern municipalities of one hundred thousand inhabitants, while other parties have existed for just a few years or have had no prospect of office or mandate for decades. So we’re on the defensive, too weak and disunited in the objectives of our European network, and in the concrete expression of shared values and lifestyles. We will become a relevant European political force again once we manage to launch a few more original approaches such as the carbon divestment campaign, a successful initiative that practices the tried and tested truism: “Think globally, act locally”.

Could you compare German and European Green policy?

For me, they belong together. I wouldn’t like to say “Here is the European policy and here is the German policy”, although of course there is a need for discussion. To invoke Al Gore, there are “inconvenient truths” which cannot be avoided. We need to have a look at where we can find partners in the EU countries for larger pan-European alliances in order to shape EU realities in a perceptible manner. Collaborative work is necessary; otherwise, we’ll lose the political justification for our existence!

To conclude, the debate over borders – you say “Yes, but…”

Yes, but humanely. And above all, we should have no borders in our minds.

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A Balancing Act: How Europe’s Response on Refugees can be Strengthened

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