Just as Theresa May's Chequers plan for Brexit was being savaged in Salzburg, EU leaders also found time to engage in their usual response when it comes to the question of migration: a lot of talk, glad-handing, and pats on the back, but very little concrete action. The summit was a two-day affair that encapsulates all of the negative connotations of the EU as an institution: slow, cumbersome, ineffective, and increasingly detached from reality.
Hours were devoted to the migration issue, that perennial crisis that has hovered over Brussels over the last five years. Based on the public statements before, during, and after the informal summit, you would be excused for thinking European leaders made a breakthrough and had finally solved a problem that has divided the bloc into a shaky and fragile house of cards. “We have achieved a lot by managing the migration crisis,” according to Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas, “The numbers have come down a lot”. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini was just as emphatic, pointing out that Brussels' cooperation and investment with African governments has slowed the flow of people making the perilous journey to the European continent. But is this really the case? The EU, it would seem, didn’t get the memo from Madrid, where Pedro Sanchez’s government has been desperately appealing for more EU funds to manage the tens of thousands of migrants who have landed on Spanish shores this year. At the same time European prime ministers were chatting it up in Salzburg, the Spanish authorities were continuing to make due with what they have: overcrowded reception centres, local police and border guards escorting young Africans to get their asylum claims in order, and a system in Spain simply overwhelmed and at breaking point.
The EU may be taking credit for bringing the numbers of migrant arrivals down (and they have indeed been going down every year since 2015, when over a million landed on European soil), but a simple fact remains: Brussels is no closer to resolving the problem today than they were earlier in the year.
Despite an agreement in late June to set up disembarkation platforms outside the EU, not a single North African country has so far agreed to cooperate. The voluntary transit centres across the EU’s southern tier, where migrants are supposed to be held and vetted for asylum, are nowhere to be found. And the Dublin system that so many European states along the Mediterranean want reformed is still the law of the land. It’s no surprise Europeans from Greece to the Netherlands are vastly disappointed with the way the EU has handled the migration issue.
Individual European governments are trying to fill the vacuum by coming up with their own schemes. Britain want a comprehensive EU effort to combat the people smugglers who are so brazen that some are even advertising their business on social media. The Italians are closing their ports. The Austrians have recommended keeping migrants on boats and determining their status on the water before any of them are able to step foot on EU soil. The French are fiddling with their own internal procedures, speeding up the asylum process and decreasing the amount of time migrants can file their asylum claims.
None of this would be necessary, of course, if the bigwigs in Brussels who talk incessantly about European solidarity actually demonstrated, well, a little solidarity. Solidarity and togetherness, however, are in short supply on migration - not because Europeans are inherently prejudicial against non-Europeans or are frightened about immigrants, but because every national government has their own ideas about what is appropriate for their citizens. Finding a common European policy on migration is like putting a square peg in a round hole. It is seemingly impossible to get the unanimity the EU is aspiring for.
The on-the-ground reality is far different from the platitudes many European heads-of-state are spouting. So different, in fact, that these leaders are starting to look like delusional elites totally removed from what is actually happening in their own countries. Five years into the migration crisis, we should all take the words of EU officials with a grain of salt. They can pay each other compliments all they want. But unless Dublin is reformed and the bloc agrees to fair refugee quotas throughout the continent, the cheery statements are one, big public relations ploy.