Until 2019, migration was the dominant topic in Germany. After that, first the pandemic, then the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis pushed the refugee problem into the background.
For months now, however, Germans have been attaching more importance to migration again. This has to do with the increasing number of refugees and migrants. In the first three months of this year alone, around 88,000 people applied for asylum in Germany. In 2022, there were around 48,000 applications in the same period. In addition, there are around a million Ukrainians who have entered the country since the beginning of the war and do not have to apply for asylum. The situation in many communities is tense. Some local politicians say: even worse than 2015.
In Berlin, the talk is primarily about the refugee summit, which took place last month under the direction of the boss himself, in the Federal Chancellery. However, the fact that Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) was there does not mean that the municipalities can count on more money. For this year, the federal government has pledged 2.75 billion euros for the care and accommodation of the refugees. In addition, there are the funds for the citizens’ allowance to which Ukrainians are entitled.
The Social Democrats and the liberal FDP suspect that the Greens are evading the sensitive issue of limiting migration by calling for more money. The municipal umbrella organizations have other demands on their list that have nothing to do with money. This includes expanding the circle of safe countries of origin, reducing certain social benefits, and consistently deporting rejected asylum seekers. The Greens raise exactly the opposite accusation: the fact that the SPD and FDP focus on these issues only serves the purpose of distracting attention from the financial issue. This debate, in turn, distracts from the fact that this is not an either/or issue. The money helps in the short term, everything else only in the medium, if not long term.
In terms of limitation, the European level is at least as important as the national. But German MEPs complain that in the Berlin discourses it is often pretended that the Common European Asylum System is some kind of nice addition. This will change something crucial. Nancy Faeser increased the pressure during a meeting with five other European interior ministers in Berlin in March: the Schengen area is in danger if the EU member states do not agree on common rules for controlling migration soon.
Now Faeser said she sees a “historic momentum” to complete the EU asylum reform. In Brussels, it is considered the most difficult of all issues, because in the end it comes down to the question of whether the states on the external border are willing to comply with the high international standards – and whether the others would relieve them in an emergency. There has been a struggle for this since the migration crisis of 2015. At that time, binding redistribution quotas were agreed, but Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic resisted it with all their might. The project was never implemented. Since then, many papers have been written on flexible solidarity, but the states are far from an agreement, although they do not need a consensus. A qualified majority is sufficient for all legislative proposals presented by the EU Commission in September 2020 – the Pact for Migration and Asylum.
In order to understand why the interior minister is driving the project forward right now, two dates are important: the meeting of EU interior ministers on June 8 – and the elections to the European Parliament almost exactly one year later. In order for the CEAS reform to be implemented promptly, it must be decided in the coming year – before the new parliament is elected. And whether that still works will be decided at the council meeting on June 8th. By then at the latest, the interior ministers would have to come to an agreement.
This time pressure is not necessarily a disadvantage for the reform. The “now or never” feeling is a major contributor to the “momentum” Faeser has invoked. As it is with tight deadlines: They are a pretty effective incentive to work productively. “If the CEAS does not come and with it reliable registration and recording at the external borders, then the Schengen area with open internal borders is in great danger,” said Nancy Faeser – and thus increased the pressure again.
The fact that the coalition has agreed on a common German negotiating position is just a small step in the great struggle between the states. It was also quite late, once again. Above all, Greens and left-wing Social Democrats pushed through exceptions. In the matter, however, the coalition partners have gotten involved with the mechanism that the EU Commission has come up with. At the external borders, asylum procedures are to be carried out faster and more effectively by making the border procedure, which was previously only practiced at airports, the standard for people from countries with a low need for protection. Anyone who has little prospect of asylum or who falsifies documents should be detained for twelve weeks while the application is being processed – so that the applicant does not disappear immediately. According to the Commission’s proposal, the entire procedure should be completed during this time, including an appeal against a refusal.
Any softening is fine with the states on the external border. Above all, they fear that they will be left with tens of thousands of rejected asylum seekers because the countries of origin will not take them back. That is why they want to decide for themselves whether to use the border procedure. In this way they would keep an outlet to relieve themselves – as is currently the case – by migrants simply moving on. This, in turn, does not suit the countries in western and northern Europe at all, and Berlin also insists on an obligation. It even wants to extend the periods in which the countries of first entry have to take back people who are apprehended in Germany. It is highly unlikely that they will agree to this; not even the Commission goes that far.
In return, Germany offers to take on a “fair share” of migrants when the asylum systems of first-arrival countries are overwhelmed. However, secondary migration should be taken into account. An important point, as the current situation shows. For example, arrivals in Italy via the Mediterranean tripled in the first quarter (compared to the same period last year), making Rome feel overburdened. But as long as most people are not registered and Germany registers many more asylum applications than Italy, there can be no talk of a “pressure situation”. In addition, the coalition insists that it will not take in more migrants than required by objective criteria. That too is tricky, so far only a dozen of the 27 states are even willing to take over. The voluntary solidarity mechanism for people rescued from distress at sea should be a kind of test run. Only a few hundred of the 8,000 places that were promised were filled.
The states should agree on a position by June, after which negotiations with the EU Parliament will begin – at least that is the plan of the German government. Many diplomats consider that far too ambitious. The fact that new elections are currently being planned in Spain and Greece makes negotiations more difficult. Nevertheless, many who deal with the topic say: It is very uncertain whether the reform will succeed, but it is more likely than ever.
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