EU refugee summit dangles relief for overwhelmed Balkan countries

Amid high tensions, European leaders at Sunday's meeting agreed to expand capacity for tens of thousands of refugees arriving in Greece and the western Balkans.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban attended a summit over the Balkan refugee crisis with leaders from central and eastern Europe in Brussels on Sunday.

Leaders of the European nations most affected by the refugee crisis running from Greece to Germany agreed to a plan to increase accommodations for asylum seekers by another 100,000 people and improve coordination between the governments involved.

But the fractious meeting, convened Sunday by the European Commission in Brussels, also laid bare the difficulty of finding a common solution to a problem that one leader warned could result in Europe "falling apart."

Under the 17-point plan reached at the summit, attended by the 11 countries most affected along the "Balkan route" of migration, including three non-EU members, Greece will increase its reception capacity by another 30,000 people by the end of the year.

UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, will work with the Greek government to subsidize the cost of housing another 20,000 migrants. The agency will also expand accommodations for another 50,000 people at multiple locations along the Balkan route between Greece and northern Europe. 

Moreover, the summit attendees – which included eight EU members as well as Albania, Macedonia (FYROM), and Serbia – agreed to improve communication between themselves. They will establish a network for daily coordination "to achieve the gradual, controlled and orderly movement" of refugees along the route and increase the collection and sharing of refugee biometric information to track applications of those seeking refuge and asylum.

The agreement came only after "a round of leaders 'venting' at each other's conduct," reports Reuters, and many obstacles remain to a coordinated response. The past couple of weeks saw several rounds of blame traded between the Balkan countries as border closings briefly halted the refugees en route to Germany and Scandinavia.

Slovenia, one of the EU's smallest member states, was particularly outspoken Sunday: Prime Minister Miro Cerar warned that his country had "received more than 60,000 migrants in the last 10 days, 13,000 in one day," an influx he called "absolutely unbearable," reports Bloomberg.

“If we do not deliver some immediate and concrete actions on the ground in the next few days and weeks, I do believe that the European Union and Europe as a whole will start falling apart,” he said.

The summit plan designated that Slovenia will receive support in order to deploy another 400 police officers to deal with the influx. Slovenia last week authorized its Army to aid its overwhelmed police force in managing the migrants.

Deutsche Welle's Riegert Bernd writes that the agreement, while only a "list of short-term measures," indicates the crisis "will hopefully be managed more humanely. The transit of refugees from Greece to Germany will also hopefully become more orderly."

But, he warns, a long-term resolution will still require patience and resolve, as the flow of humanity is not going to stop.

Until the EU's external borders are protected again, until refugees and asylum seekers can be registered and cared for in Greece or Italy, or even sent back, then weeks, if not months of the same situation lie ahead. It could also take months until Turkey begins to pull its weight too. Can Germany, can Merkel hold on so long?

The whole Balkan refugee chain will only continue to work as long as Germany and some other countries take in refugees at the end. If Germany or Austria close off their borders, there would be utter chaos in the Balkans. Some countries have therefore openly threatened the chancellor, saying they too would seal off their borders - making Merkel personally responsible for the swelling influx of refugees. The end of the EU as we know it would then be inevitable.

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