Written by Ralf Drachenberg
The EU Heads of State or Government will hold an extraordinary, informal European Council meeting on 23 September 2015, with the aim of trying to reach an agreement on possible responses to the current migration crisis. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk , has stressed the need to focus on how to address the situation in countries of origin and transit in the Union’s neighbourhood. The annotated draft agenda of the next regular European Council, scheduled for the 15-16 October already foresaw a “substantial discussion on migration in all its aspects”. The European Council was expected to take stock of what has been done since the June European Council, to prepare the 11-12 November 2015 international summit in Valletta and discuss the follow-up to the Western Balkan route high-level conference, which is due to take place at the beginning of October. Following recent developments on the ground, notably the huge influx of migrants during the summer, and at European political level, for example the outcome of the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 14 September 2015 , Mr Tusk has decided to bring forward this discussion and have an extraordinary European Council meeting on migration.
The situation has worsened since the last European Council on 25-26 June 2015 in numerous Member States, first and foremost the frontline Member States (i.e. Greece, Italy and Hungary). Migration flows via the Mediterranean and Western Balkans routes, illegal border crossings into the EU as well as asylum applications have significantly increased in recent months. Acting on the Conclusions of the June European Council, the European Commission has tabled a comprehensive package of proposals aimed at helping EU Member States and neighbouring countries to address the crisis. Three of the main proposals include: a common list of safe countries of origin, a structured solidarity mechanism and provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy, Greece and Hungary. The latter proposal includes the mandatory relocation of 120,000 persons in clear need of international protection, in addition to the 40,000 people covered by the previous European Commission proposal of 27 May 2015. The European Parliament adopted the proposal for relocating 40.000 people on 9 September 2015 and the proposal for relocating 120,000 people on 17 September 2015, following an urgent vote procedure.
Challenges in the European Council to agree a common European migration policy
While the Justice and Home Affairs Council agreed on the relocation of 40,000 people on 14 September 2015, it failed to agree on the European Commission’s proposal to relocate 120,000 people from frontier countries based on mandatory national quotas. This latest disagreement follows a series of challenging discussions between the Member States, most notably at the April and June European Councils, which could not find a satisfactory approach for all actors involved regarding the issue of mandatory quotas. The main advocates of binding quotas are the European Commission, Germany and France, Sweden and Italy, while some of the Central and Eastern European Member States are against them. The Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico, stated that “Slovakia will never support mandatory quotas as part of the European Union’s response to its migrant crisis”. The Visegrad countries (i.e. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) issued a joint statement on 4 September 2015 outlining their views on the crisis. Whilst being critical of mandatory quotas, the Romanian President, Klaus Iohannis, stated that Romania could voluntarily accept 1,785 refugees. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, said that “It’s not a European problem, it’s a German problem”. Poland is now more open to the idea of the European relocation scheme and willing to take in more migrants.
The United Kingdom and Denmark decided not to take part in a European Union relocation scheme while Ireland opted into the scheme, accepting 4000 refugees. While not willing to take part in a European Union mandatory relocation scheme, Denmark would still accept 1,000 migrants coming from other EU countries on a voluntary basis, while the UK signalled its intention to take in 20,000 directly from the refugee camps in countries adjacent to conflict zones.
An additional challenge is that Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Denmark, Hungary and France have either already temporarily reintroduced border controls or are strongly considering this option. European Council President Donald Tusk already tried to set the tone for the European Council in his invitation to the members of the European Council, in which he addressed both the closing of the national borders as well as the issue of shifting responsibility on to others.
Calling of the extraordinary European Council meeting
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian Prime Minister Werner Faymann, as well as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico called for an extraordinary European Council and in the European Parliament there were also calls for such a meeting. Prior to the meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 14 September 2015, Mr Tusk already stated that without a concrete, positive sign of solidarity and unity from the Justice and Home Affairs ministers’ meeting, he would call an emergency meeting of the European Council in September. The European Commission stated that the majority of Member States are willing to move forward as soon as possible towards an agreement on relocating 120,000 refugees. While a consensual approach is preferred by all actors involved, according to some it is ‘very likely’ that qualified majority voting may be applied in the Council, if this is not possible. Others believe that the final agreement will not include mandatory quotas. To prepare the discussions on the quotas, the foreign ministers from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, met on Monday 21 September in Prague together with the Luxembourg presidency of the Council.
Possible outcome of the European Council meeting
The discussions in the European Council are expected to go beyond the relocation scheme, and focus on the overall approach to the crisis. Particular issues the European Council will discuss include: ‘help to the frontline Member States; cooperation with the Western Balkan countries, with Turkey and the countries bordering Syria; budgetary assistance to the High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme; and the implementation of the European Council conclusions on return and readmission’.
The European Council will most likely issue a statement building on a previous note prepared by the Presidency of the Council. If the Justice and Home Affairs Council on the 22 September 2015 can find a consensual approach to the relocation of 120,000 migrants, based on a quota system, the Heads of State or Government are of course expected to endorse this outcome.
New EPRS publications
EU migratory challenge: Possible responses to the refugee crisis, DG EPRS, 2015
Recent migration flows to the EU: Detections of illegal border crossings in the EU (January – June 2015), DG EPRS, 2015
Migration [What Think Tanks are thinking], DG EPRS, 2015
 Protocols 21 and 22 to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, provide Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom the choice of participating in European Justice and Home Affairs
 Informal European Council’s do not adopt Conclusions, they only issue statements.