EU leaders tonight (23 April) dealt Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker a double-blow on immigration at their meeting to discuss the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
Juncker tried to use the meeting of heads of state and government to push EU policy on legal immigration.
“My proposal for legal immigration was not supported,” he told reporters at a press conference after the summit.
He also tried to secure resettlement across Europe for 10,000 refugees. Instead he had to settle for a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement for those qualifying for protection.
A lower 5,000 places was discarded on the basis that it was too insignificant to be taken seriously, an EU official said after the summit.
Except for the pilot, “we don’t have a mandate for relocation,” said Juncker.
The conclusions agreed by EU leaders also demand a new programme for the “rapid return of illegal migrants from frontline member states”. They are highly likely to include Malta, Greece and Italy.
Juncker stressed a legal immigration system was part of the solution to illegal immigration.
He said that the summit conclusions still allowed the Commission to work on its immigration agenda, including legal immigration, to be adopted by the executive in mid-May.
“I would have liked already for us now to be more ambitious, but nonetheless the conclusion will allow us to continue our discussions,” he added.
The Juncker administration has said it will not propose legislation that does not have the necessary support from EU countries to pass. This is part of its “better regulation” strategy.
So tonight’s summit is likely to have a significant influence on the Commission’s final migration agenda.
It is not known exactly what Juncker’s proposal was. But when he was campaigning to become Commission President he championed a common EU-wide asylum and migration policy.
That could be based on the EU’s existing, but poorly implemented, Blue Card system. Denmark, the UK and Ireland opted out of Blue Card. Blue Card, which aims to attract highly-skilled workers to the EU, grants migrants the right of residence in other EU member states.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz also told EU leaders that only a common migration and asylum policy could respond adequately to the problem.
He called for an EU-wide system for fairly distributing refugees throughout the bloc, the same asylum procedures across the EU, and an EU-wide system of legal migration for those who want to come and work. Schulz said that if EU leaders did not increase the funding for rescue operations significantly, the Parliament would block the next EU budget.
Some governments, such as Germany, want a fairer distribution of asylum seekers through the EU. Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the EU to revise the “Dublin” rules on responsibility for asylum seekers at her late press briefing.
The Dublin Regulation aims to determine rapidly the member state responsible for an asylum claim and provides for the transfer of an asylum seeker to that member state.
However, since the country that a person first arrived in is responsible for dealing with the application, this puts excessive pressure on border areas, where states are often least able to offer asylum seekers support and protection.
Some countries such as Norway and Finland have in recent years stopped sending migrants back to Greece, where they first arrived in Europe, as the country appeared unable to protect and care for unaccompanied children.
“Two-thirds of migrants end up in only five member states,” Merkel said, highlighting efforts made in Sweden, the country which accepts the most migrants and refugees, and her own country Germany.
“We will deal with a fairer distribution later on. This was just the first step,” the Chancellor said.
But Juncker was successful in tripling the funding to Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, to €120 million. It was originally expected to just double.
Frontex runs Operations Triton and Poseidon, the replacement for the Mare Nostrum search and rescue programme.
“This brings the funding up to the same level as Mare Nostrum,” said Juncker.
Eu officials were also “pleasantly surprised” by the pledges from member states of manpower, money and vessels.
British Prime Minister David Cameron promised when he arrived at the summit that the UK would send its Royal Navy flagship, three helicopters and two rescue boats, and later on added that the UK will send 30 experts.
French President François Hollande and Chancellor Merkel also said they would send vessels for rescue operations.
France will send three experts, and one surveillance plane will be operating for 15 days in May. Later this year, another surveillance plane and a patrol boat will be added.
Germany will send ten ships, one naval vessel and asylum experts.
But other countries, including Italy, Greece, Croatia, Cyprus, Spain, Slovenia, Romania, Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Malta, Slovakia and the Netherlands made no additional pledges.
At the end of the summit, an EU diplomat said that it was still unclear whether the member states that would make an extra effort by sending ships independently would somehow get a reimbursement.
But an EU official said that in return for his pledges, Cameron would expect that the UK would not have to open its borders for more migrants and pointed to the fact that the UK is one of the largest aid donors in the EU.
The summit conclusions said the EU would strengthen its presence at sea, fight traffickers, including destroying boats before they are used, and work to prevent illegal immigration flows.
A planned tripling of finances towards Triton will not address the reality of the search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean unless the operational area is extended to the high seas where most of the deaths occur, Amnesty International said.
“Having ships in the Mediterranean only matters if they are in the right place as the deadly shortcomings of Operation Triton have demonstrated. Unless they go the full mile, migrants and refugees will continue to drown,” said Iverna McGowan acting director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office in Brussels.
“If Triton’s mandate can’t be changed, then Triton is not the solution, however many resources one gives it. Real solutions could have been agreed today. No one should be fooled. They haven’t been.”