The world woke up on Friday to find out that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union (EU). As the markets tumbled overnight, with the pound plunging to record lows, uncertainty has taken over across the UK as British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he will step down in the fall.
Polling stations opened on 23 June at 7 AM BST and closed at 10 PM BST. While polls indicated shortly after voting ended that the Remain camp was going to be the likely winner, overnight, as the vote count came in, it increasingly became apparent that Brits had voted to leave the EU. While Prime Minister David Cameron had urged the country to vote Remain, he was ultimately defeated by 52% to 48% despite London, Scotland and Northern Ireland all backing staying in. The referendum turnout was 71.8% – with more than 30 million people voting. It was the highest turnout at a UK-wide vote since 1992. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has hailed Thursday’s vote as the UK’s “independence day.” Mr Farage, who has over the past twenty years campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, told cheering supporters that “this will be a victory for ordinary people, for decent people.” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stated that the EU vote “makes clear that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union” after all 32 local authority areas returned majorities for Remain. It is thought that Scotland may seek another referendum on separation from the UK.
The impact of the vote however has already been felt across the UK and on international markets, with the pound falling to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985 as the markets reacted to the results. Bank of England governor Mark Carney has stated that UK banks’ “substantial capital and huge liquidity” allowed them to continue to lend to businesses and households, adding that the Bank of England is ready to provide an extra £250 billion of support.
PM to Step Aside
Despite MP’s signing a letter overnight urging Prime Minister David Cameron to stay on whatever the result, on Friday morning the Prime Minister announced that he will step down by October after the UK voted to leave the EU. Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, he disclosed that he would attempt to “steady the ship” over the coming weeks and months, noting however that “fresh leadership” was needed. Flanked by his wife Samantha, Prime Minister Cameron indicated that he had informed the Queen of his decision to remain in place for the short term and then hand over to a new prime minister by the time of the Conservative conference in October. He has indicated that it will be for the new prime minister to carry out negotiations with the EU and invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would effectively give the UK two years in order to negotiate its withdrawal.
Process to Leave the EU
While Britain is set to be the first country to leave the EU since its formation, the Leave vote does not immediately mean that Britain ceases to be a member of the 28-nation bloc.
That process could take a minimum of two years, with Leave campaigners suggesting during the referendum campaign that it should not be completed until 2020 – the date of the next scheduled general election. Once Article 50 has been triggered, a country cannot re-join the EU without the consent of all member states. Prime Minister Cameron previously indicated that he would trigger Article 50 as soon as possible after a Leave vote. However Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who led the campaign to get Britain out of the EU, have disclosed that the prime minister should not rush into it. They have also indicated that they want to make immediate changes before the UK actually leaves the EU, such as curbing the power of EU judges and limiting the free movement of workers, potentially in breach of the UK’s treaty obligations. The government will also have to negotiate its future trading relationship with the EU and fix trade agreements with non-EU countries.
In Whitehall and Westminster, there will now begin the massive task of unstitching the UK from more than 40 years of EU law, deciding which directives and regulations to keep, amend or ditch.
EU Leaders Call for Stability and Solidarity in Wake of Vote
In the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, shocked EU leaders have called for stability and solidary but also for change and reform. While President of the European Council Donald Tusk has stated that the remaining 27 members are determined to stay united, leaders like Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi have stated that the EU had to change and become “more human and more just.”
The European parliament has called for a special session for Tuesday 28 June to assess the vote, while foreign ministers of the six founding nations of the EU – Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg – will met in Berlin on 25 June. Some leaders of EU member states, such as France’s Francois Hollande, held their own crisis talks on Friday. European parliament president Martin Schulz, president of the European Council Donald Tusk, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also went into emergency talks.
Since the beginning of the year, Europe stood witness to ever-augmenting migratory flows. These immigrants seek to reach Europe in an effort to get away from the war and instability that plagues their home-countries. The attempts to reach the European borders were underlined by ever-increasing fatalities of immigrants drowned in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. In the beginning of the year, these flows mainly used Libya to gain access to Italy through the Mediterranean, however, during the second quarter of 2015 the flows shifted their focus towards Greece since the passage to Europe through Turkey and Greece was deemed safer. Europe’s response to this crisis was slow and, in most cases, inadequate. The first attempt for the implementation of a quotas plan that would distribute the immigrants to the European countries was met with strong opposition from many European countries that deemed the plan as unfair. In the past months the only plan that found the European states in agreement was the provision of financial aid to the countries that carry the main burden of the problem to help handle the flows. While Europe stood frozen and unable to agree on the proper way to handle the crisis, the immigrants continued entering EU through Greece and Italy, and from there traveling central and north European countries.
Many countries chose to handle the problem individually, and in a mostly unsuccessful way. Greece and Italy, already burdened with the responsibility to save thousands of immigrants daily from half-sank dinghies at their sea borders, had to create, in a limited timeframe, the necessary infrastructure to identify these individuals, and divide them between refugees that have a legitimate claim to asylum and to economic immigrants that need to be returned to their home-countries. That proved to be challenging both for Greece and Italy, with the first facing at the same time an economic and political crisis that did not allow for an effective implementation of policies that would help alleviate the crisis. Hungary chose to handle the crisis in an unsuccessful, and for many unethical, way by building in a matter of weeks a fence along its Balkan frontiers and using the army to ensure that no one will pass this fence. This measure was deemed unethical since it violates the EU’s fundamental principles that oblige the member-states to provide asylum to anyone that has legitimate reasons to flee his home country because his life is in danger. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban achieved gaining the public’s support of his strategy through a series of campaigns, amplified by friendly media, that projected the immigrants as an imminent threat for the Hungarians. After the fence went up, and plans for its extension were announced, riot police used gas and water cannon on stone-throwing immigrants. At the same time, it was an unsuccessful measure since it has been proven in the past that fences do not stop these flows, they simply redirect them to seek other routes. That resulted in the shift of the migratory flows towards Croatia in an to attempt reach their destination countries. Under the burden, Croatia reacted in a similar, rather instinctive, way by closing seven of its eight road border crossings with Serbia following the ever-increasing influx of immigrants that redirected their routes after Hungary fenced off its borders and closed its borders with Serbia. Additionally, Czech Republic was severely criticised after it used the police to remove the immigrants from the trains headed to Germany, and started detaining and numbering immigrants using permanent markers to write registration numbers on the wrists and arms of immigrants. Even Germany, that announced during the last week of August the temporary suspension of the Dublin Agreements stating that it would accept all Syrian asylum-seekers, decided, barely eight days later, to close its borders with Austria leaving thousands of immigrants stranded in Austria’s train stations. The continuation of these practises will not solve the problem, contrary, they will only succeed in trapping these immigrants to Greece, creating a situation which could take unthinkable dimensions.
With a plethora of similar measures being implemented across Europe many started discussing the suspension of Schengen Agreement, one of the pillars upon which European Union is based on and promotes the freedom of movement between the member states. This is not the first time the Schengen Agreement seems to be under threat. In 2011, fearing an influx of North African refugees, Italy and France pushed for a review of the agreement. Earlier this year the Dutch Prime Minister threatened Greece with expulsion if it allowed immigrants free passage to the rest of Europe. Neither eventuality came to pass. What Germany did by temporarily closing its borders with Austria is not a direct violation of the agreement, since Schengen allows countries to briefly reinstate border controls for reasons of national security. However, if these controls become a way to handle the influx of immigrants then they risk reversing decades of European integration.
On September 22 and 23, Europe made another attempt to handle the immigration crisis, since as the time passes and the problem persists, it seems that the European leaders realise that it is a situation that has to be faced collectively. Not only within the borders of the EU, but also by collaborating with other countries that are affected by this problem such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The European states agreed by a strong majority on a mandatory plan to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers across the continent over the next to years. Four governments – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania- opposed the proposal, and Finland abstained. This plan, however, shares the burden of only a fraction of the total number of asylum seekers who have come to Europe during this year, a total that already surpasses 500,000. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that his government will not honour the ministerial decision even of it risks a lawsuit by the European Commission. Additionally, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said after the vote that this plan will encourage more immigration and that Europe’s culture will be irrevocably diluted by allowing more Muslims to settle.
Under the plan agreed by the EU’s Foreign Ministers, some 66,000 asylum seekers will be relocated from Italy and Greece to other EU member states in coming months (15,600 from Italy and 50,400 from Greece). That leaves around 54,000 people who could be relocated from other countries if they experience a sudden influx of migrants and appeal for help. After one year, Italy and Greece will be reallocated the remainder of this reserve, meaning that they will be able to send additional number of asylum seekers elsewhere in the EU. From the plan are excluded only the three countries who have a partial opt-out from EU immigration rules, the UK, Ireland and Denmark. Despite UK being officially excluded by the quotas system, it has been repeatedly under pressure, mainly from France and Germany, to share the burden and accept immigrants. The British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that UK will commit another 100 million pounds to supporting refugees camps bordering Syria and has agreed to accept 20,000 refugees from these camps over the next five years. Ireland stated that it will participate in the quotas plan despite its opt-out. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, which are not in the EU are also taking part. To assuage concerns from some Central and Eastern European member states, EU governments may seek a one-year delay for accepting up to 30 percent of the asylum seekers they are allocated. That could be further extended by a second year if other member states and the European Commission agree.
The quotas were determined largely by the size of each country’s population and its GDP. Also taken into account was the country’s unemployment rate and its number of spontaneous asylum applications and resettled refugees per one million inhabitants in the last five years. That has as a result that 60 percent of asylum-seekers be moved to just three countries, Germany, France and Spain. However, the plan does not account for the migrants who will continue to flood into Europe this fall. At the same time, there is a provision for the creation of ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy by the end of November where EU experts can quickly register and identify people for refugee protections. The quotas plan will be paired by a simultaneous effort to provide more help to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries in the region in the hopes of at least dissuading some people who are fleeing conflicts and poverty to stay in the Middle East. EU will allocate one billion euros to the region in cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program. At the same time, the European leaders agreed during their meeting on September 23 to strengthen the management and the control of EU’s external borders, since it would be unfair to expect that Greece and Italy to handle on their own this huge influx of immigrants.
However, this agreement is nothing more than a temporary solution to the problem. To begin with, the decision to override the dissenter countries means the EU will be sending thousands of people to nations that do not wants them, raising questions about both the future of the 28-national bloc and the well-being of the asylum-seekers consigned to this countries. The acceptance and integration of the immigrants into the local communities is further disturbed when countries, such as Germany through its Chief of Intelligence Hans-Georg Maassen, circulate the view that the refugees could be recruited by radical Islamists already in the country to organise terrorist attacks. It is apparent that this kind of rhetoric does not facilitate their integration and acceptance to the local communities. Additionally, EU has not announced according to which criteria the refugees will be chosen to be allocated to each country, creating rumours that countries such as Germany that are in need of specialised workforce will accept mainly the refugees with high qualifications and distribute the ones with a limited educational and professional background to the other countries. Finally, while the majority of the European leaders seem to be satisfied with the agreement reached, they did not highlight that this plan deals with only a portion of the 500,000 immigrants currently in Europe and they did not acknowledge the fact that the biggest migratory flow has not as of yet commenced. Turkey currently hosts 2,5 million refugees, Lebanon around 1,5 million and Jordan some 700,000 refugees. It seems apparent that the allocation of one billion euros is a temporary solution and will not dissuade them from attempting to seek a better future in Europe. Nevertheless, the value of the agreement reached should not be undermined. It is the first organised and cohesive reaction of a Europe that proved during this crisis that its crisis management reflexes are extremely slow. However, it should not be considered as a viable solution to a problem that its route causes have not yet been addressed.
European Union (EU) Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced last week plans, which he says will offer a “swift, determined and comprehensive” response to Europe’s migrant crisis.
Speaking to the European Parliament, Mr Juncker set out the plans in a “state of the union” annual address, in which he outlined the priorities of the European Commission. Under the proposals:
- EU member states to accept their share of an additional 120,000 refugees, building upon proposed quotas to relocate 40,000 refugees, which were set out in May (however governments then only actually agreed to take 32,000)
- A permanent relocation system aimed to “deal with crisis situations more swiftly in the future”
- Commission to propose list of “safe countries” to which migrants would generally have to return
- Efforts aimed at strengthening the EU’s commons asylum system
- A review of the Dublin System, which states that people must claim asylum in the state where they first enter the EU
- Better management of external borders and better legal channels for migration
Under the new plans, 60% of those currently in Italy, Greece and Hungary would be relocated to German, France and Spain. The numbers allocated to each country would depend on GDP, population, unemployment rate and asylum applications that have already been processed. Countries that refuse to take in migrants could face financial penalties.
While Spain has already indicated that it will accept a quota of almost 15,000 additional migrants set by the EU, Mr Juncker’s proposals have been criticized by both Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has stated that the compulsory quotas were “not a good solution,” while his Slovakian counterparty has called them “irrational.” Poland and Romania have also opposed the idea, however Poland has agreed to take in more migrants. France has already welcomed the first of 1,000 migrants that it has pledged to take from Germany and it has committed to receive 24,000 migrants over two years. Waving EU rules, Germany has welcomed Syrian migrants, and has indicated that it expects to deal with 800,000 asylum seekers this year alone, warning however that not all will quality as refugees and some will be sent back. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Germany needed to learn from its mistakes in labelling incomers in the post-war period as “Gastarbeiter” or “guest workers,” with the implication that they were not permanent residents, adding that many of the refugees it expects in future “will become new citizens of our country.”
In a separate development, Australia has announced plans to take in 12,000 Syrian refugees.
The mass migration has seen those seeking an end to persecution, conflict and hardship travel from Turkey across the sea to Greece, through Macedonia and Serbia, then to Hungary, where from there they aim to reach Austria, Germany and Sweden. This mass migration however has forced some countries to close their borders in a bid to keep migrants out or force them to travel through other countries to reach their final destinations. On 9 September, Denmark suspended all rail links with Germany and closed a section of motorway after migrants cross the border and began walking north, apparently trying to reach Sweden. Meanwhile in southern Hungary, migrants on the border with Serbia broke through police lines at the Roszke camp, which forced authorities to close the M5 highway.
The next steps for EU leaders will include:
14 September – Special meeting of EU interior ministers on refugees crisis, with Mr Juncker’s proposals on the agenda
15 – 16 October – EU leaders’ summit, with refugee crisis high on the agenda. The European Parliament will then decide on any new asylum measures with EU governments
Early 2016 – EU proposals for better management of legal migration to EU are due.