December 18, 2015 / 3:51 PM / 2 years ago

Back to reality for Merkel as Europe stalls on refugees

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the Bundestag, the German lower house of parliament, in Berlin, Germany, December 4, 2015. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Only two of the 11 refugee reception “hotpots” Europe hoped to get up and running this year are working. Less than one percent of the 160,000 migrants it agreed to relocate have been. And a recent drop in arrivals has more to do with the weather than any crackdown by Turkey.

The harsh reality of Europe’s refugee crisis, spelled out in stark numbers and cautionary rhetoric in a report given to EU leaders at their end-of-year summit, was a sobering wake-up call for German Chancellor Angela Merkel after her triumphal showing earlier in the week at a congress of her conservative party.

At that meeting in the southern German city of Karlsruhe, Merkel delivered a passionate defense of her refugee stance and, crucially, pledged to substantially reduce the number of migrants entering Germany.

Her political future probably rests on her ability to deliver on that promise, and to do so in the first few months of 2016, before three state elections take place in mid-March. Yet at the summit in Brussels, it was abundantly clear how limited her leverage really is.

Although she described a “mini-summit” with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu before the full EU met as “very good”, the appetite in other European countries for her voluntary program to resettle migrants from Turkey seems limited. A majority of EU leaders stayed away.

Publicly, German officials have praised Ankara for its apparent readiness to help Europe on the migrants. Privately they express disappointment with what Turkey has done so far to stem the tide of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece.

The report by the Luxembourg presidency of the EU on how the bloc is managing the migration flows spoke of “significant gaps” in implementation and acknowledged that the planned relocation of 160,000 migrants -- hailed by Merkel in her Karlsruhe speech as a “major success” -- was “unsatisfactory”.

Even European Council President Donald Tusk spoke of a “delivery deficit” on the implementation of a range of migrant measures agreed by leaders in recent months. The summit conclusions said: “Deficiencies, notably as regards hotspots, relocation and returns, must be rapidly addressed”.

MERKEL VERSUS THE WORLD

In a positive development for Merkel, EU leaders pledged to fast-track the establishment of a border and coastguard force, a key element of her strategy to stem the influx at the bloc’s external rim.

However some leaders, including Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, made clear their opposition to giving Brussels powers to send in EU border guards without the consent of the country concerned.

Ultimately, officials acknowledged, the EU has little direct leverage over how member states police the bloc’s external borders, beyond the implicit threat to boot them out of the Schengen free-travel zone if they don’t cooperate -- a breakup German officials say would be disastrous for Europe.

In contrast to Karlsruhe, where Merkel deftly headed off any open dissent, the frustration with her policies on a range of issues was glaringly apparent in Brussels.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi led the rebellion, trying to convince fellow center-left leaders to rise up and push back against Merkel and German power at a pre-summit meeting.

Renzi’s ire centered around the Nord Stream-2 project, unveiled back in September, which would double the amount of gas shipped directly from Russia to Germany -- raising eyebrows at a time when the EU has sanctions in place against Russia over Ukraine, and after another Russian pipeline project, South Stream, was canceled last year, to the detriment of Italy.

Siding with Renzi, European Council President Tusk, a Pole, said he believed Nord Stream-2 flouted EU rules on diversifying energy supplies. Officials said only Germany and the Netherlands appeared to be in favor of it.

One source close to the meeting tried to play down the seriousness of the clash, before adding that, in any case, “attacking Merkel is not a sin”.

The German chancellor also appeared relatively isolated in opposing a European bank deposit insurance scheme that the European Commission and many other EU states see as a crucial pillar of the bloc’s ambitious “banking union” project.

“It was pretty much Merkel versus the rest of the world in the room. Renzi complained about Nord Stream, others about the economic bits,” said an EU diplomat.

Ultimately though, it is the migration crisis, and not these side issues, which will make or break the German leader. She bought herself some time in Karlsruhe but -- as the EU summit made clear -- remains uncomfortably dependent on other states, notably Turkey, to make that time count.

Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Gabriela Baczynska and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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