On Tuesday, the European Union's (EU) interior ministers accepted a plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees that had come to Europe. Similar talks one week earlier failed, because several Central-Eastern European countries opposed the scheme. Lithuania has already committed itself to accepting 1,105 refugees; in the long run, though, the number might grow ten times.
© Reuters/Scanpix

So many refugees would present a big challenge, but not an unmanageable one. It's high time that Lithuania, which has demanded solidarity from other EU nations so many times, support its partners in need of assistance.

There must be compassion and solidarity, but there also need to be red lines. We must resist calls to set up a permanent mechanism of mandatory quotas that would in the future come into effect automatically. Such an unchecked quota system would pose a great threat to Lithuania's sovereignty. Should there be a mechanism automatically sending refugees to Lithuania with each new influx of migrants, Lithuania would no longer have control over its borders. In such an event, it would be Brussels, not Vilnius, deciding who will live in the territory of Lithuania. Not much is left of sovereignty, if politicians and bureaucrats of other countries make such decisions. Moreover, Lithuania would not be giving up some of its sovereignty freely, but rather succumbing to great pressuring.

However convenient such a mandatory quota system would be for Brussels bureaucrats and Germany, it is unnecessary, we could do easily without it. Each time when the issue of redistributing refugees is on the agenda, we could summon a meeting of EU ministers or leaders. The Greek debt crisis has shown that such summits are possible to have each week or even more frequently. A more flexible arrangement would ensure more freedom to act for all the countries, let them respond to changing circumstances and wishes of their citizens, something which is no trivial matter in democracies. Let's note that sanctions on Russia have not been adopted indefinitely, they must be renewed every six months.

I have little doubt that the latest rush of refugees was largely motivated by Chancellor Angela Merkel's statement that Germany would not shut its doors. We can only admire the German charity and benevolence in accepting an unprecedented number of people fleeing wars. But Germany cannot take in a million or two million refugees and then demand that other EU countries host big shares of that number. You cannot invite people over and then tell your neighbours that they'll sleep in their homes.

It is sometimes argued that we shouldn't put all the responsibility on Germany; that it is still unclear whether the latest surge of migration was caused by Berlin, that it might have been a coincidence. There's no coincidence there. Refugee numbers surged up right after Merkel's statement about open borders was broadcast across the globe. At the same time, there was no intensification of military action in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan that could have forced so many people to leave their countries.

Many refugees carried placards with images of Merkel, they chanted "Merel, Merkel!" and said they were heading for Germany. Such admiration for the German chancellor did not come out of nowhere. If we were to stick to an extremely rigid definition of causality, then perhaps it has yet to be proven that it was Merkel's remarks that spurred the latest influx of migrants. But if such stringent criteria were applied to other issues, the social science's ability to prove causal relations would be underwhelming indeed.

There's no consensus on the refugee issue either in the EU or Western Europe, including Germany itself. German Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière and Social Democrat Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel have intimated several times that countries opposing refugee quotas might see their EU support cut. Gabriel reiterated his threat last Friday, saying that countries that do not subscribe to European values like charity and solidarity should not expect constant financial support.

On Sunday, the same idea was expressed by French President François Hollande. On the other hand, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, sister party to the German Christian Democrats, invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to their meeting. One could hardly imagine a more straightforward slap for Merkel and the policy of her government. Merkel herself has been less outspoken on the refugee issue, but on Tuesday she reiterated the need for a consensus rather than making decisions by a majority vote.

The Western countries are not entirely blameless in this drama. A number of dubious decisions have been made over the years. Several million refugees have been living in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan for several years now. These countries have not had adequate resources to ensure decent conditions for the refugees. Support from rich Western governments for those countries has been appallingly meagre. Life in refugee camps has been near unbearable, so little wonder that the refugees set off for the land of dreams, Germany, at the first opportunity. Europe's frugality will cost it dearly. My guess is that accommodating Syrians in Western Europe costs 5-7 times more than in Turkey.

Kęstutis Girnius
Kęstutis Girnius
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Most refugees now travel to Europe via Turkey. Without Turkey's cooperation we cannot expect to manage the flow. But why should Turkey help the West, after the EU has been keeping its door shut for over twenty years? Turkey has yet to meet all accession criteria, but there are countries in the EU that are categorically opposed to Turkey's membership. Germany is one of them.

Last year, Merkel turned down Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's request to support Turkey's efforts to join the EU. When running for the European Commission presidency, both Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker declared that Turkey would not be accepted into the EU during their term. Now this trio of politicians will have to ask Ankara for help.

Before Turkey became the gateway to the EU, many migrants had been travelling to Europe in boats from Libya. Libya became a failed state only after NATO countries had organized an offensive, in violation of the letter and the spirit of a UN resolution, overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi and contributing to his death.

The refugee crisis is the biggest challenge for the EU in its entire history. We need decisions and we need them fast. But we must not give in to pressure from panicking German politicians to introduce mandatory quotas that would significantly violate national sovereignty.

Especially since the quota system is likely to be ineffective. Some EU countries can simply stall matters, even refuse to accept refugees. Sanctioning them will be difficult. There's only a very slight chance that refugees will stay in the countries they are assigned to. The pull from rich Western European countries is so strong that they can hardly be expected to stay put in countries they have no desire to live in. It is even more difficult to imagine them being forcefully deported from Germany or Sweden to Lithuania or Hungary.

So why rush to impose an arrangement resented by many countries which will likely fail to achieve what it's designed for? However, while we resist mandatory quotas, we must bear in mind how important the EU is to Lithuania and how much worse life would be for everyone without the EU.

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