The emergence of a new migration crisis on the southeastern borders of the EU has prompted a very different approach to the way things were done back in 2015.

Then, more than a million people entered the EU in a great surge of humanity, most seeking refuge from the wars in Syria and Iraq.

The sight of large columns of people trudging past, or through, Europe's borders caused a political and social backlash that almost ended the Schengen system of free movement inside the EU, led to internal bickering between member states over who was to blame for the inflow, and who was not taking their fair share of migrants and refugees.

A humanitarian catastrophe was only averted by Angela Merkel unilaterally accepting a million refugees into Germany.

But the political damage had been done.

The then leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, famously used pictures of the refugees to conflate EU freedom of movement (which is only for EU citizens) with the sudden arrival of a million asylum seekers, and others from around the world looking for a piece of the European dream.

Migration became the big issue that overlay the complexities of Brexit, and made the idea easier to sell in a referendum.

In France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Poland and elsewhere the migration surge of 2015/2016 fuelled the rise of right and far right parties, offering anti-immigrant platforms.

And it was a godsend for both fringe activists and more sinister forces to apply their social media skills to. 

Now we are on the brink of another possible migration crisis.

But this time the EU response could not have been more different.


Because as the EU commissioner in charge of migration issues, Margaritis Schinas declared on his way into yesterday's emergency justice ministers' meeting: "Europe cannot fail twice on such an important issue".

Schinas, who is himself Greek, had spent Tuesday touring the Turkey/Greece/Bulgaria border region along with the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.

It was a high-level publicity tour, designed to show the Greeks – and the Turks and anyone else, for that matter – that this time is supposed to be different.

Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission President, announced a package of supports to help Greece defend its land and sea borders – more than 600 border guards from other EU states to deploy, along with planes, helicopters, patrol boats, and specialist vehicles. And some €700 million in two tranches to help pay for the operation.

But of more concern to the Greeks was getting the EU top brass to say that Greece was defending a European border, not just a Greek border.

This was political cover for the Greeks to use fairly robust means to repel those trying to make Greek territory and claim asylum.

And they got their way.

Last night the 27 ministers, including Ireland’s Charlie Flanagan, agreed a tough-sounding communiqué: "The EU and its Member States remain determined to effectively protect EU’s external borders. Illegal crossings will not be tolerated. In this regard, the EU and its Member States will take all necessary measures, in accordance with EU and international law. Migrants should not be encouraged to endanger their lives by attempting illegal crossings by land or sea. The Council calls upon the Turkish government and all actors and organisations on the ground to relay this message and counter the dissemination of false information. The EU will continue to actively fight human smuggling."

"All Member States, the European Commission and EU Agencies stand ready to strengthen their support to areas under pressure, including through the deployment of FRONTEX's rapid border intervention and additional technical assistance. Member States will swiftly provide the support necessary to ensure the immediate deployment of the relevant teams and assets."

Frontex is the EU's border guard agency, co-ordinating mutual help between national border guard services.

Ireland is not a member of Frontex, so is not offering personnel and equipment.

But it is contributing to the EU's funding of humanitarian aid projects in Turkey – so far pledging around €40m in a package worth €6 billion.

It hasn't all been paid out, and none of it is channelled through the Turkish government – going instead to NGOs providing services to the huge displaced person population Turkey hosts – some 3.7 million from Syria alone, with almost a million more crammed into Idlib, but hoping to escape the Assad regime, which is closing in.

While minsters were meeting in Brussels to try and toughen up the external borders, other EU officials were meeting their Turkish counterparts – Charles Michel, the European Council President, meeting Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president in Ankara.

Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, met his Turkish counterpart as well.

Arriving later in Zagreb for an EU defence minsters' meeting, Borrell said the situation in Idlib was "one of the most dramatic human rights situations since the second world war".

"Just imagine," he said, "almost a million people being pushed to the Turkish border, which is closed, in the middle of winter, with almost all civilian facilities being bombed, and people trying to escape and looking for shelter. We are sending as much civilian aid as we can – €160m to the UN, but the real problem is not money, its logistics, how to get through the borders: it’s difficult to provide the kind of aid needed in a military conflict. We need once again to call for a ceasefire."

That wider diplomatic and military situation in Syria is to be the subject of an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers tomorrow in Zagreb. (An informal meeting taking place there has been upgraded into a full formal session, because of the gravity of the situation.)

The Russians are giving military and political support to the Syrian government.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in Helsinki on Tuesday that Russia is engaged in a fight against terrorists, and will not stop fighting, just because Europe has a migrant problem.

But the big power regional conflict being played out in Syria is resulting in the distressing scenes on the Greek islands and the Greek-Turkish border this week.

But it is not just the pictures of conflict and human suffering that are concerning.

Read more:
EU foreign ministers meet over Turkey migrant exodus

One of the most controversial aspects of the past few days has been the decision of the Greek government to suspend asylum applications.

This is supposed to be a human right, and other countries are uneasy about what Greece has done.

Some have questioned its legality.

Commissioner Schinas, after last night’s meeting, said both the EU treaties and secondary legislation allow member states to establish "grounds for spacing out the processing of asylum applications".

Greek ministers in Brussels yesterday said they thought they would be in a position to restart accepting new asylum claims in less than a month.

Georgios Gerapetritis said there were more than 80,000 pending asylum applications in the system already.

The Greek ministers didn't say they wanted money or a sharing out of responsibilities for processing asylum claims – for them the most important thing they wanted from the other EU states was a statement that Greece was working on behalf of all the EU in protecting the border.

The minister said he has spoken to all the Justice and Home affairs ministers on Tuesday, and said they had thanked him and the Greek authorities for protecting the border.

Ireland's justice minister Charlie Flanagan issued a statement after the meeting "This Declaration is a clear statement from all Member States that we will continue to address the challenges of irregular migration as a Union and we will support our European partners using all available resources. I welcome the deployment of Frontex to provide assistance and I particularly welcome the Commission’s financial and coordination commitments."

"Ireland will continue to show support and solidarity as required. All Member States this evening indicated their readiness to contribute to helping frontline Member States under pressure now and those that might be similarly affected in the future. I have no doubt we will follow up on these discussions at next week’s scheduled JHA Council and I will also await with interest, the outcome of the discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council on Friday."

But political cover for a stout defence of the border fences, and a united front in the face of what many states regard as blackmail by the Turkish government, is the easy bit.

What is coming next will be more difficult for the states to organise.

We know this because they have spent the past five years trying – and failing.

Because the big stumbling block for the EU internally is how it shares out what is often described as the "burden" of taking in asylum seekers and looking after them.

But an even bigger one is the construction of a legal migration process.

With few if any ways to legally migrate to the EU, people seeking a better life in Europe have little option but to migrate illegally.

Either they use smuggling networks, or they chance it all themselves.

The death toll in the Mediterranean shows what desperate people will do: having a legal migration route might reduce to some extent the numbers attempting such crossings.

Mitigating climate change that is causing water shortages is another longer term, harder to achieve project that may also reduce the pressure on people to leave their own lands.

Commissioner Schinas intends to have another go at getting agreement on a new migration policy for Europe in the coming months.

Yesterday, he said: "Exceptional situations are also an opportunity to introduce a new, holistic, collective European way of managing migration. This is a new chance - and probably our last chance - to foster an agreement between all 27 states."