By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Leaders of the European Union declared this week that it has "failed" in the face of human agony on its frontiers. But the migrant crisis may now be forging a better way forward.
The failure is evident. Of millions fleeing war, oppression and misery, hundreds of thousands have been desperate enough to brave the sea to reach Europe; thousands have died but their numbers still multiply despite a mostly stony welcome: razor wire, hunger, filth and hosts more intent on blaming each other than on their common duty to help.
That may be changing, although far from certainly and all too slowly for those cradling sick infants in open boats or fighting for air in a Balkan smuggler's truck.
New facilities are being set up to care for and assess the claims of those arriving; schemes to ease the strain on Italy, Greece and other frontier states are about to launch; and something like a plan to address costly, long-term problems in the Middle East and Africa has won broad support across the EU.
"It takes a crisis to get a solution and the European project ... goes in fits and starts," said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, the Geneva-based body which has been a critic of past EU policies.
As on many issues, the 28-nation bloc has long struggled to advance a common approach on immigration amid competing national interests. "But," Doyle said, "It looks like they're heading toward some better mechanisms, they're certainly trying."
After a summer of squabbling, diplomats see a new resolve to act, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She calls Europe's worst migration crisis since World War Two the biggest challenge of her decade in power, underlining not just its human scale but the existential threat it poses to the EU as a whole by unleashing nationalistic forces driving Europeans apart.
"The world is watching us," Merkel said after talks with Balkan neighbors in Vienna on Thursday. "As a rich continent, I am firmly convinced Europe is capable of solving the problems."
CROSSING THE MOAT
Four months ago, EU leaders were jolted into action when 800 people drowned in a single boat. They reversed cuts in naval patrols, despite fears that would tempt more people to sea.
Shamed by suggestions that Fortress Europe was hiding from responsibility behind its Mediterranean "moat", the EU says so far this year 95,000 people were rescued; some 500 have drowned since April, compared with 1,800 in the previous four months.
Within weeks, the EU executive under new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had drafted a long-term "migration agenda" which national leaders endorsed in June, albeit with rows about sharing the load that are not yet settled - and no lack of complaint from burgeoning anti-immigration parties.
They agreed a pilot scheme to take in more Syrian refugees direct from the Middle East, redistribute some of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers crowded in Italy and Greece, deport more people whose claims for protection fail, and step up aid and other efforts to discourage Africans from emigrating.
"If you look from an EU perspective, the progress that's been made in the last four months is lightning fast," said Elizabeth Collett, director the Europe office of Washington-based think-tank the Migration Policy Institute.
Europe, she said, now faced a steep learning curve to knit together policies from diplomacy on Syria and Libya, to development aid, defense, and relations with would-be EU members in the Balkans and Turkey, as well its creaking mechanisms for handling asylum claims and passport-free travel inside the bloc.
Those latter two elements, known as the Dublin and Schengen rules, are at the heart of rows that Juncker has called "finger-pointing - a tired blame game which might win publicity, maybe even votes, but which is not actually solving any problems".
The Dublin rules make each state responsible for housing and processing the asylum claims of those who first enter the EU on its soil. Schengen bars identity checks at internal EU borders.
Italy and Greece have led calls for change to Dublin, demanding others take a bigger share. In turn, Germany and others accuse them of failing to register migrants and helping them on their way northward, straining support for leaving internal EU frontiers largely unmonitored at a time when Islamist attacks have fueled disquiet over the Schengen system.
It is not just job prospects and family ties that draw many north. EU states have a common external border but each pursues its own policies on granting asylum. Sweden, the most welcoming, granted leave to stay to more than three in four asylum-seekers in 2014. Greece said no to 85 percent, Hungary to 91 percent.
One migrant told Reuters in Hungary he would "chop his hands off" to avoid being fingerprinted there - and hence obliged to claim asylum from Budapest. His goal was to reach Sweden.
Last year, 626,000 people requested asylum in the EU, a 65-percent increase on 2013 and nearly three times the figure in 2008 when economic crisis struck, destroying jobs across Europe.
This year seems certain to break a post-1945 record set in 1992 during the Balkan wars. Germany alone has said it expects to handle some 800,000, four times as many as it did last year.
ACTION UNDER PRESSURE
Yet the difficulty of setting a common policy was manifest when leaders angrily rejected Juncker's May proposal they accept binding quotas to share out an initial 40,000 asylum-seekers from Italy and Greece. They rebuffed "diktat" from Brussels, and eastern states pleaded immigrants would simply not fit in.
A round of voluntary pledges currently stands at about 32,000 for the pilot "relocation" scheme. However, Juncker now plans a new permanent mechanism by December that would share out asylum-seekers from EU states seeing a surge in arrivals.
In Sicily and near Athens, facilities are being prepared for so-called Hot Spots - asylum processing centers where staff from other EU states will help ensure migrants are documented and fingerprinted - appeasing Schengen neighbors in the north.
Along with pledges to take in 22,000 Syrians via U.N. camps, portrayed by EU officials as a prologue to a bigger role in caring for the 4 million Syrian refugees in the Middle East, the embryonic relocation system should go into action next month.
Also in the works is an EU list of "safe" countries whose citizens are broadly presumed not to merit protection. That should include Balkan states set on joining the EU and would be part of efforts to speed up removals of failed asylum seekers - now, typically only half those ordered to leave actually go.
The U.N. refugee agency says deportations can both free up resources for arrivals and bolster public support for asylum.
Speeding up returns forms part of increased cooperation with migrants' home countries that the EU is preparing. Efforts to stem the flow of west Africans crossing the Sahara to Libya have started with a mission in Niger alerting migrants to the risks.
Longer-term, the Union will tie aid to governments' efforts to discourage their people from migrating north and it may offer more legal immigration to a bloc with an aging population.
Long-term thinking is welcome, migration experts say. The Syrian refugee crisis alone is likely to persist for years, MPI's Collett said: "What we've seen in the last year or two, it could be turning into a new normal for the next decade."
(Editing by Anna Willard)