It does sound a bit like a breakthrough and comes just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Madrid. Starting this weekend, refugees picked up at the German border who have already instigated asylum proceedings in Spain can be sent back. Spain is currently the European Union country where the majority of refugees arrive — after Italy refused to take in even those who had been saved at sea, and Greece became a dead end for many migrants.
Read more: Is Spain facing a new wave of xenophobia over migrants?
So far, though, little is known about the agreement — a few scant lines on Twitter and some incidental remarks during the press conference. For the German Interior Ministry, the most important thing seems to be to point out that the Spanish expect nothing in return. We can, however, assume that Germany will make very sure Spain has the necessary resources so it does actually register the migrants on arrival and process their asylum applications. This will be one of the things Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss with the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, on her visit to Andalusia this weekend.
Small number of cases
Yet the agreement is not actually that big of a breakthrough. The number of asylum seekers registered in Spain who make it all the way through France to the German border is expected to be manageable. The number coming across the German-Austrian border is even smaller. Besides, Spain has also insisted that the entire process, from picking up the migrants to returning them, must be completed within 48 hours. Anyone familiar with German bureaucracy will be forgiven for expressing doubts as to whether this will actually work. Furthermore, no one knows for how long Prime Minister Sanchez and his very fresh but unstable Spanish government will actually be able to hold onto power. When the next Spanish governmental crisis comes along, the agreement may become obsolete again.
So the deal between Berlin and Madrid stands on shaky ground, and there are reasons to doubt it really will have an impact. Nonetheless, the German government wants to make similar agreements with Italy and Greece — because the function of these deals is primarily a domestic one. These are the successes Chancellor Merkel, in particular, needs in order to defend herself against her critics, along the lines of: Look, I am doing something.
Not addressing the root causes
However, all this should not distract from the fact that the real problem is not being solved. Thousands of people from Africa to Afghanistan are still leaving their homes to try and get to Europe. They are prepared to run the risk of dying of thirst in the desert, drowning in the Mediterranean or being sold as slaves by ruthless human traffickers. It seems that anything is better than staying in their countries of origin. When these people make it to Europe, they arrive on a continent that is still responding to this development with the old tactics of isolation. Agreements like the one between Germany and Spain are part of this. It won't be enough. Yet it seems all the political forces in Europe currently lack both the will and the strength to do more.