On Thursday (24 October), the European Parliament voted by a thin majority against a resolution calling on the EU to step up its search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean, exposing a certain degree of political volatility in the hemicycle.
The resolution, launched and supported by MEPs from the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D), was ultimately rejected by a very narrow two-vote majority in a hemicycle that comprises 750 MEPs.
The Chairman of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), the Spanish socialist MEP Juan Fernández López Aguilar, said that “too many people are losing their lives in the Mediterranean” and described the situation as an “urgent” one.
“Our system urgently needs to be reformed,” he argued, adding that “if we want to act responsibly, search and rescue cannot be left to NGOs alone. And we should not criminalise humanitarian aid in any way whatsoever.”
In a press release, the S&D group has pledged to continue the fight for “a mechanism that allows for a more equitable and sustainable distribution of people rescued at sea among EU member states, with solidarity and justice as guiding principles.”
“Europe should carry out more and better-organised search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean to save human lives,” said Raphael Shilhav on behalf of charity Oxfam.
He recalled that “more than 1,000 women, men and children have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean this year alone”.
“Europe must do everything in its power to prevent further tragedies,” he stressed.
Anti-immigration parties influence
Although the resolution was not binding, the vote had relevant political consequences at both the EU and national level.
The resolution could have been passed with the votes of 14 MEPs elected with the Italian anti-establishment party Five Star Movement, which initially seemed to back the text of the socialists.
Five Star also backed Ursula von der Leyen’s bid for Commission president in July, hinting that the president-elect cannot rely on a monolithic majority in the European Parliament when it comes to deciding on sensitive political issues such as migration.
Italian anti-establishment MEPs pledged to support the resolution on condition that the three amendments they proposed have been included in the final text.
One of the three amendments raised some controversy in Italy the day before the vote, as it called on member states to keep their ports open to NGO vessels engaged in SAR operations “in line with the relevant international conventions and other applicable rules.”
Initially, Five Star MEP Laura Ferrara told the Italian press that, for other applicable rules, they meant “international agreements and national laws applicable to different cases,” a reference that could be related to right-wing Lega leader Matteo Salvini’s decrees, which were explicitly against NGOs.
After the vote, Ferrara specified it was a generic formula to indicate other customary and conventional international laws.
However, socialists and Greens voted in favour of a Renew Europe amendment that scrapped the Five Star one on open ports, leading the 14 MEPs to abstain during the final vote.
The step back of Five Star was heavily criticised by Italian socialist MEPs like Pierfrancesco Majorino, who said that they had blown up the entire resolution over just one misunderstanding on a single amendment.
“Sometimes you are incomprehensible,” he said on Twitter to Five Star MEP Ignazio Corrao. Since August, Five Star and centre-left Democratic Party (PD) have been in a ruling coalition in Italy.
Another socialist MEP, Nicola Danti, now at Matteo Renzi’s party Italia Viva, said that Five Star show its continuity with the past government with Lega, at least on migration policy.
The fact that the centre-right and liberals also rejected the ambitious final text showed that, although anti-immigration parties were not involved in the EU power-sharing, they proved themselves able to shift the balance on such a highly political topic.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]