Merkel and East European Leaders Discuss Migrant Crisis in Brussels

BRUSSELS — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany met here on Sunday with leaders of East European countries along the main migrant trail to affluent parts of Europe in a new push to bring some order to a chaotic flow of tens of thousands of people seeking shelter from war or simply a better life.

The gathering, called at Ms. Merkel’s behest by the European Union’s top executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, was the fifth consecutive meeting of leaders focused on so far fruitless efforts to deal with Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the end of World War II.

Voicing despair at Europe’s failure to forge a common policy, Miro Cerar, the prime minister of Slovenia, which has been swamped by 60,000 people from Syria and elsewhere over the past 10 days, said that continued failure to act in concert would signal “the beginning of the end of the European Union and Europe as such.” Europe, he said, “will begin falling apart.”

The European Commission, the union’s executive arm, has proposed a raft of plans and programs since the early summer to deal with the migrant crisis but a wide chasm has opened up between talk in Brussels and real action on the ground.

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A Family Swept Up in the Migrant Tide

This summer, as the Majid family left Syria for Europe, The New York Times followed the group through weeks of defeat and triumph, disillusionment and determination.

In the five months since the Commission first announced a plan to relocate 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy to other European countries, for example, only 87 people have so far been moved. At the current pace, it would take more than 750 years to relocate the 160,000 asylum-seekers covered by a now expanded resettlement plan.

Arriving in Brussels on Sunday, Ms. Merkel added her own powerful voice to calls for solid action instead of statements. But while insisting the emergency meeting should focus on “practical questions,” she cautioned that it would not be possible to resolve the “whole question of refugees,” because that would require talks with Turkey, which was not represented at the Brussels meeting.

Even so, she said leaders needed to find a way to help people who were “erratically wandering around, often under excruciating circumstances” and better share the burden of providing for them among the various nations involved along what has become known as the “Balkan Route.”

At home, Ms. Merkel faces growing pressure from within her conservative bloc, which has suffered in opinion polls because of the crisis. Support for the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union has dropped to its lowest point in three years, according to one prominent German polling firm.

Recent weeks have seen a rise in the number of far-right attacks in Germany and the tone of the political discourse has become increasingly raw, worrying security officials and raising questions over the chancellor’s insistence that the country can handle the influx of asylum seekers, expected to reach at least 800,000 this year.

Unlike previous meetings devoted to the migration issue, Sunday’s gathering of 11 leaders included not only countries that belong to the 28-nation European Union but others outside the bloc, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia. “Exceptional times demand exceptional measures,” Ms. Merkel said.

Gjorge Ivanov, the leader of Macedonia, through which most asylum seekers pass on their way from Greece to northern Europe, said 10,000 people are now entering his country each day. “If we don’t stick together we will all hang separately,” he said, citing Benjamin Franklin.

Warning that the flow of refugees will only increase as a result of intensified fighting in Syria, Johannes Hahn, the European Union’s senior official for regional policy, pleaded Sunday for a “coordinated and coherent answer” and said that attempts by individual nations to stop the flow would only turn other countries into “parking lots” for stranded migrants. “Don’t look for individual solutions. This is not a way out,” he said.

Mr. Hahn’s comments signaled growing alarm in Brussels over efforts by some countries in Eastern European, notably Hungary, to keep asylum seekers out. A fence built by Hungary along its southern border to prevent migrants and refugees flowing through its territory has pushed the flow toward Croatia and Slovenia.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s pugnacious prime minister, sounded a characteristically defiant tone upon his arrival Sunday in Brussels, saying that he was attending as only an “observer” as Hungary is no longer part of the migrant trail. Mr. Orban repeated his longstanding position that the only realistic way to solve the crisis is for the European Union to take over control of Greece’s eastern border with Turkey, the main corridor for migrants and refugees seeking entry to Europe.

“We should go down south to protect the borders of Greece,” Mr. Orban said, complaining that he had proposed this many times “but no one accepted.”

Mr. Juncker, the president of the European Commission and the chief architect of the bloc’s stillborn response to the crisis, has meanwhile put forward yet another plan, a 16-point proposal that some leaders attending the meeting in Brussels immediately dismissed as unrealistic.

An early draft of the plan put to leaders on Sunday called for an expanded role for Frontex, the European border agency, in the sea between Greece and Turkey and also along Greece’s land borders with Macedonia and Albania. It also pledged to help Greece increase the capacity of refugee reception centers on outlying islands to 50,000 people to help ensure that all new arrivals from Turkey get properly registered and fingerprinted, which has previously not been the case.

The plan demanded that countries stop “waving through” migrants and refugees, a demand that infuriated leaders whose governments have no interest in holding people determined to reach Germany or Scandinavia. Officials said the plan was being revised to accommodate the objections of various countries.

In an interview published on Sunday in the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, Mr. Juncker pleaded for swift action, repeating a refrain that has been repeatedly ignored in the past. “Every day counts,” Mr. Juncker said, “Otherwise we will soon see families perishing wretchedly in cold rivers in the Balkans.”

The cornerstone of the commission’s migration policy, the slow-moving relocation plan, has been stalled by resistance from East and Central European countries that object to taking in refugees for resettlement. But even a sharp acceleration of a plan to relocate 160,000 refugees would barely make a dent in the number of people that have flooded and continue to flood into Europe.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 537,000 migrants and refugees have crossed into Greece alone so far this year. Instead of slowing after a series of summit meeting in Brussels focused on stemming the influx, the flow of migrants through Greece has only increased, with around 9,600 people arriving there from Turkey each day last week, the highest number so far this year.

East European countries, the main transit route for migrants heading north from Greece to Germany and Scandinavia, have reacted with fury toward what they view as fanciful European Commission plans disconnected from reality.

On the eve of Sunday’s meeting of leaders in Brussels, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic derided new commission proposals that countries stop migrants passing through their territory without consulting their neighbors.

“That is impossible,” Mr. Milanovic said. “Whoever wrote this does not understand how things work and must have just woken up from a monthslong sleep.”

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