Migration: What the European Council should decide after the tragedy in the Mediterranean

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The European Council will have to make crucial decisions regarding the future of the EU in the fields of migration, asylum and border protection, said Elmar Brok MEP. Otherwise, the Mediterranean will remain the deadliest route on the globe.

Elmar Brok is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament and the President of the Union of European Federalists (UEF).

Europe is still mourning the death of more than 800 people, who perished last Sunday while trying to reach the coast of our Union. The grief expressed by the leaders of our continent and the European institutions is more than necessary. But this time verbal solidarity shall not suffice.

Indeed, we Europeans have a lot to blame on ourselves. The recurrence of such tragedies in recent years makes it difficult to deny that those lives were sacrificed to the division among European Union’s member states. Divisions that have made it impossible to form an effective European policy on migration, and an effective foreign and security policy to help in stabilising North Africa.

Europe has to react, and it has to do so united.

Abolishing the borders between our countries is one of the major achievements of the European project. Although we may take it as a given, freedom of movement is the greatest sign of confidence and unity between nations. Precisely because of that, the external borders of the union are no longer the problem of the few peripheral countries, but a shared concern, and a single responsibility that the union has to deal with as a whole.

Needless to say, it needs common rules and a common system for their management. This is the price of unity. But some member states are unwilling to pay their share.

Some governments are still entrenched in the intergovernmental method and the conservative rhetoric of the European Council. This leaves the European Union divided and without adequate means of intervention, as the weak Triton operation has shown. In the meantime, the peripheral states have to carry the burden of being the gate to the biggest area of prosperity and peace in the world. It is high time for the Union to be allowed to take over its natural duties.

Today, the European Council will have to make crucial decisions regarding the future of the EU in the fields of migration, asylum and border protection. Otherwise, the Mediterranean will remain the deadliest route in the globe. It is imperative that all available means are deployed in order to prevent future tragedies.

The 10-point plan proposed by Commissioner Avramopoulos on Monday takes steps forward in the right direction, but some specific political deadlocks must be lifted in order to make the EU fully able to address these issues.

The European Council should resolve that the Triton and Poseidon operations are significantly scaled-up, by increasing their financial resources and operational assets, and by extending their mandates beyond the mandate of Frontex, so that they can act in international waters and carry out “research and rescue” missions and save lives, not only patrol our borders.

Those were the features that made the success of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation. A simple scaling up of resources, although badly needed, will not be sufficient.

Moreover, it should request an initiative by the Commission aimed at urgently reforming the Common European Asylum System. This reform must ensure that all persons fleeing armed conflict and persecution, and who are in need of international protection, have effective access to legal asylum procedures (including in their country of origin) and do not need to turn to people smugglers to come to Europe.

The voluntary resettlement or relocation pilot project proposed by the Commission is a timid first step. A mandatory quota system based on a country’s GDP or population, accompanied by adequate financial means and administrational capabilities, would be the solution for joint management of asylum seekers’ flows.

It is also necessary to take the big leap towards a European immigration policy. A single European policy on immigration and asylum should be formulated as soon as possible, including Europe-wide criteria, and a European system of legal migration.

This policy should comprise the integrated management of the asylum system and the external borders’ control based on the principles of solidarity, burden sharing and optimisation of existing European capabilities. It should be equipped with the necessary economic and human resources and the necessary operational assets. Frontex should evolve into a permanent European force of border guards to support member states in need.

Member states should make available existing European military capabilities (like Euroforces) in case of extraordinary flows. In the longer term, the launch of such operations should not require unanimity of member states. They should be financed through the European budget (not left to the goodwill of national governments), they should benefit from EU assets, and should be steered directly by the European Commission, not by a multitude of agencies.

But the effectiveness of these initiatives would be very limited if the EU does not tackle the underlying causes of the mass migratory movements. The EU must make progress on a single European foreign, security and defence policy that includes a renewed Mediterranean Partnership to support the political and economic stabilisation of the countries of North Africa, Sub-Sahara and the Middle East. This should include an effective development policy, especially towards North Africa and Sub-Sahara.

These reforms are extremely ambitious, but sorely needed. Only with increased political unity will the European Union be able to save the lives of thousands of migrants escaping wars and persecution.

It is true that Europe cannot take on all the woes of the world. But it has the moral duty to assume its share.

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