EU leaders to declare: ‘We cannot take more migrants’

North African and South Asian migrants. Brussels, June 2014. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

One of the messages the EU heads of state and government are expected to deliver at their extraordinary summit today (23 April) is that the Union cannot absorb any more mass arrivals of migrants, as they risk undermining it economically, and destroying it politically.

The meeting will take place today at 1600, following public outrage after 900 migrants died on Sunday, when their boat sank on its way to Europe from Libya.

>> Read: EU leaders try to rise to the refugee crisis challenge

Diplomats said that the summit will come up with four main messages. The first is that the EU is ready to save lives. Indeed, leaders are likely to agree on doubling the cash and equipment available to two Union border patrol missions in the Mediterranean, a senior diplomat said.

>> Read: EU to double size of Mediterranean rescue operations

The second message is to traffickers, with EU leaders making it clear that “their business model would be destroyed”. It is expected that the the summit will authorise EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini to immediately begin preparations for a possible security and defence policy operation against human traffickers in Libya.

>> Read: EU leaders to consider military crackdown on Libya human traffickers

The third message will be for migrants, whom the EU will try to discourage from coming to Europe. “Europe has its limits, the individual member states, the individual societies have their limits,” a diplomat said, adding that further arrivals of migrants are unsustainable economically and risk destroying the EU.

The diplomat explained that discouraging migrants is “extremely sensitive” politically, that it is a “a challenge to present it”, and that its substance was that Europe is not ready to receive any more mass influxes of refugees, because then everyone who wants to have a better life will come to Europe. “This would destroy Europe at the end,” he said.

He added that those who qualify should benefit from the EU’s asylum policy, should they not abuse the system, and that prospective “economic migrants” should be kept at a distance.

He said that these issues were discussed at yesterday’s EU-Africa summit, adding that if the Union is giving these countries huge amounts of development money, efforts are also expected from them to cooperate in this area.

>> Read: EU-African summit focuses on migration

The fourth message is an internal one: that more solidarity between member states was needed in terms of burden-sharing, though it is not actually expected.

Who is responsible?

EU leaders are also expected to address the overarching issue of responsibility for the deaths at sea.

“Europe is not responsible for the situation, it should be very clear. Whether we have capacities or whether we can create capacities to stop people from dying is our responsibility. But that they are dying in the sea is not our responsibility,” the diplomat said.

Responding to criticism that the EU has not supported the continuation of the Italian military search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum (see background), the diplomat said that this operation had only filled the pockets of traffickers, who charge $3000 per immigrant only to take them 12 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, where they are rescued by Italian ships.

Asked about the state of lawlessness in Libya, the diplomat acknowledged that there are demands for an Atalanta-type effort, but added that such action would require a UN Security Council resolution.

Atalanta is an EU military operation protecting Somalia-bound vessels from pirates.

But he acknowledged that Moscow would not support such a resolution under present circumstances, and that anyway, member states are divided over the idea, as well.

Since 1999, the EU has worked to create a Common European Asylum System and improve the current legislative framework.

New EU rules have now been agreed, setting out common high standards and stronger cooperation, to ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system – wherever they apply.

But member states rejected the Commission's proposal that asylum seekers from the countries mostly affected from the arrival of migrants should be relocated in other EU countries.

The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to EU border control agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the often dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

>> Read: Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year

The chaotic situation in Libya has sparked a rise in migrant boats setting out for Europe from its unpoliced ports carrying refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

In 2013, Italy’s previous government initiated the search-and-rescue operation "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea" after hundreds drowned in an incident off the coast of Lampedusa.

But Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of €9 million a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

That made way for the European Union's border control mission, Triton. However Triton, which has a much smaller budget and narrower remit, has been criticised by humanitarian groups and Italy as inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem.

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