As European leaders prepare for a mid-February summit -- just the latest such gathering to seek a solution to the Continent's refugee crisis -- the politics surrounding that crisis are intensifying. Under the aegis of Dutch leadership, the 28 heads of state must somehow compromise in order to save one of the fundaments of the EU: free movement across borders. Failing such a compromise, there is no Plan B.
Europe's attention is fixed for now on Amsterdam, as the Dutch government holds the rotating presidency from January until July 1. Within these six months, the European Union needs to find solutions to several daunting challenges at once. The refugee crisis is at present the number one problem faced by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, EU president Donald Tusk, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Rutte caused a bit of a ruckus in EU leadership circles when he said that the union should resort to what he called a Plan B if the leaders of the member states fail to unite on a compromise. Such a compromise would lead to tightened controls along Europe's southern borders, and an allocation of refugees already in Europe among member states. Rutte said that the European Union has six to eight weeks to agree on a compromise.
To Eastern European member states Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia, any forced allocation of refugees from the Middle East is unacceptable. They refuse to offer shelter to any refugees, and they will not accept orders from Brussels on the matter.
Rutte declined to expand on what a Plan B might entail, but last November Dutch finance minister (and Eurogroup chairman) Jeroen Dijsselbloem hinted at forming a mini-Schengen consisting of The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, and Austria. This would abolish the current 26-state Schengen free movement area, whose 26 members include most of the EU states. (The United Kingdom, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania are not members.)
The treaty that arranges free movement of people within the area is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg, where the treaty was signed.
The establishment of a mini-Schengen would mean that these nations would reinstate dormant borders between them and the other EU states, severely limiting the free movement of refugees to the new Schengen countries. It would also effectively mean the end of free movement among a high number of EU nations, removing one of the fundaments of the European Union. Imagine the states of New England uniting to erect fences and border controls to separate them from states outside New England, and you have the idea.
If this is what Rutte meant when he mentioned a Plan B, well, that is not a real plan. Thus far it appears to be a way to exert pressure on those countries that are now opposing a compromise on the refugee issue -- most of them nations that rely on open borders for trade with some of the economically most powerful countries in the EU, among them Germany and the Netherlands. Re-establishing tight border controls would severely hamper trade routes for the economies of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
Thus far the governments of these countries seem unfazed by the Dutch threats.