Brexit and Other ‘Exits’: How to Keep the EU Single Space

On September 19-20, Salzburg hosted an unformal EU summit – yet another meeting of the heads of state, dedicated to the common and the most acute issues – first of all, migration crisis and Brexit. It is important to underscore the role Austria played and the attempts to move both problems from the deadlock.

Let us start in order. Since 2015, the EU has been trying to overcome the migration crisis, partly caused by its “open doors” policy and its unwillingness to notice the problems of borderline countries like Italy and Greece caused by the influx of refugees and economic migrants from developing states. Take the tragic Lampedusa case (an accident, when a ship with migrants crashed off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, caused 366 people dead): that was in 2013, long before the critical peak, but the EU did now draw any conclusions from the tragedy, and the same cases with refugees and illegal migrants repeated for the five years that followed. In autumn 2015, the position of Austria regarding this “sudden” influx of migrants was quite tough. It was possible to predict the flow to increase by a comparative analysis of the indicators from the beginning of 2015 with the similar indicators of 2014, but that was neglected. It is quite obvious that summer weather improvement creates more favorable conditions for migrants to cross the border. It resulted in toughening of Austrian national legislation in 2016. To date, we can talk about the outflow of indigenous population from big cities to the “quieter and safer” countryside.

The second issue on the summit’s agenda, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, was equally complex and controversial. On the one hand, Brexit has nothing to do with the influx of refugees, but on the other, remember the rhetoric used to persuade British citizens voting at the referendum – that is the migration issue. How can we prevent the wave of refugees from the continent, how can we stop or contain the influx of migrants as a whole? Theresa May’s answer sounded like that: Britain must shape a migration policy of its own, different from the continental Europe. The number of migrants in the country and the high level of unemployment among them in recent years that caused a high level of criminalization in the eyes of the average citizen increased the probability of voting for withdrawal. However, Brexit is related to a number other problems, like the border with Ireland.

Regarding these two main aspects of the Salzburg summit, the context of the meeting is also significant. It was obviously important for Austria to find certain compromises and to begin solving the issues. The summit was preceded by the following chain of events: in late August, President Vladimir Putin held an unformal meeting with Austrian Foreign Minister (at the wedding celebration) and then with the Prime Minister of Germany. There is no doubt that these two topics were touched upon in informal talks, too. Russia clearly took a course toward rapprochement, while Austria and Germany are ready to have a dialogue with Moscow. On the eve of the summit, Theresa May said that the Skripal affair would be discussed. The March issue with Skripals gets its continuation in September. Will Austria look back at the UK and the US as its closest partners? In this context, Austria would have many difficulties with finding a balance and especially taking steps forward. As a result, summit did not bring any results.

What is next, though? Both Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk talk about the need to hold another summit this autumn, but the question is how these negotiations could be effective if the parties retain their current positions. Unfortunately, the liberal approach and human rights issues (regarding the migrants) lead Europe to a dead end. It is only by toughening stances and imposing restrictions that the deadlock can be broken, but the strengthening of border controls, which is under discussion, could provoke other “Exits”. For that, the EU is not ready financially, and it would destroy the very idea of ​​a single, homogeneous space.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.