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EU leaders argue over how to solve migration crisis

24 April 2015

by Gavin Drake in Brussels


Message: people carry signs on a silent march through Brussels on Thursday, organized by Amnesty International to commemorate the victims of trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea 

Message: people carry signs on a silent march through Brussels on Thursday, organized by Amnesty International to commemorate t...

AN EMERGENCY meeting of the European Council - the 28 EU-member heads of state and government - in Brussels on Thurday agreed to increase search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean to combat further tragedies affecting migrant boats; but Europe's political leaders failed to reach agreement on an EU-wide migration policy.

The search-and-rescue initiative replaces "Mare Nostrum", an EU naval operation that had been triggered in 2013 by the deaths of 400 asylum-seekers off the Italian island of Lampedusa, but then cancelled a year later after some governments - including Britain - claimed that it was encouraging unsafe migration.

The British immigration minister, James Brokenshire, told the House of Commons at the time that people smugglers were using it as cover to take greater risks: 3000 people had been killed in the year Mare Nostrum was in operation compared with 700 in the whole of 2013, he said (News, 14 November 2014).

But the deaths of an estimated 1300 migrants in the Mediterranean over the past fortnight, bringing the total number killed this year to about 1750, has forced the governments to think again.

The EU currently has two sea-based migration protection operations: Triton, in the Mediterranean, uses four fixed-wing aircraft, a helicopter, and seven boats; and Poseidon, operating in the Aegean, with one fixed-wing aircraft, a "Thermos-vision vehicle", and ten boats.

Britain declined to participate in the patrols, offering instead technical assistance in the form of a "debriefing expert". But on Thursday, the Prime Minister told his EU counterparts that Britain would now send the Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark, three helicopters, and two border patrol ships to support Operation Triton.

The EU leaders agreed to increase the budget of Operation Triton to the levels of the Mare Nostrum. They also agreed to work towards limiting "irregular migration flows" by working with countries of origin and transit; to support "front-line member states under pressure"; and to explore ways of capturing and destroying the traffickers' vessels before they could be used.

"Saving the lives of innocent people is the number-one priority," the European Council president, Donald Tusk, told journalists after the meeting. "But saving lives is not just about rescuing people at sea. It is also about stopping the smugglers and addressing irregular migration

"Let me be clear. Europe did not cause this tragedy. But that does not mean we can be indifferent. We are facing a difficult summer and we need to be ready to act. . .

"Leaders had no illusions that we would solve this international human emergency today. Therefore, we have tasked the Commission, the Council, and the High Representative to step up their work, based on what we have now agreed. This issue remains our priority and the European Council will come back to it in June."

The European Council's failure to agree further steps is unlikely to go down well in the European Parliament, where many MEPs have supported the call of the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, for an EU-wide migration policy and a system of resettlement within Europe. Speaking before the European Council's decisions were announced, the president of the European Parliament, the German MEP Martin Schulz, told journalists that the MEPs would deliver a "very, very lively response" if the heads of government failed to deliver.

"What we need is legal immigration to Europe," he said. "Legal immigration means that member states need to agree amongst themselves on a fair quota system, meaning that people who come here can then be re-allocated between the member states."

He said that the number of migrants granted asylum in the EU last year - around 310,000 - was "feasible" in a population of "over 500 million Europeans". But, he said, "if they all go to the same places, it does become more difficult." He pointed out that four member states - Germany, Sweden, Italy, and France - fielded nearly two-thirds of all asylum applications in the EU.

"For decades now, the European Parliament had been discussing these things in countless resolutions, and they predicted what has happened would happen. The Commission itself has come up with a number of proposals; but while the decisions are taken geographically in Brussels, they are actually taken in Berlin, London, Warsaw, Madrid, Lisbon, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vienna - it's the EU national capitals that decide these things, and that is why you have this complicated, contradictory mix."

Before the meeting began, Mr Tusk had downplayed hope of any agreement on resettlement, saying that it would be "the most difficult, the most challenging" part of the meeting. "Why is it so difficult? It will be a discussion about readiness to sacrifice some national interests for the common economic good, and this is always, here, the most challenging moment in our discussions," he told journalists.

His point was demonstrated by the conditions David Cameron imposed on his offer of HMS Bulwark. Speaking as he arrived in Brussels for the summit, he said: "Britain, as ever, will help. We will use our aid budget to stabilise neighbouring countries, and as the country in Europe with the biggest defence budget we can make a real contribution." But he stressed that this offer was made "under the right conditions, and that must include that people we pick up and who we deal with are taken to the nearest safe country, most likely Italy, and don't have immediate recourse to claim asylum in the UK."

It was a point he reiterated at the end of the meeting: "I think it is right for Britain to step forward, for the Royal Navy to play a role. They will be saving lives, not offering people asylum in the UK, but saving lives and taking them to Italy or other nearby countries."

Mr Juncker admitted that he was disappointed with the outcome. "We are not going to find a solution to this problem if we deal solely with illegal immigration. We have to take account also of the legal migration side of things," he said. "I would have liked for us to be more ambitious. That was not possible.

The European Commission will continue to discuss its "agenda for migration" in May, as they attempt to come up with "a package that will enable us to have a more comprehensive approach". MEPs will have a chance to debate this issue in a keynote debate in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

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