No easy or quick fix for rolling crisis in the Mediterranean

Unfolding tragedy a wake-up call for EU to finally deal with immigration

Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel with British counterpart David Cameron and German chancellor Angela Merkel during the  EU leaders summit in response to the migrant crisis. Photograph: Reuters

Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel with British counterpart David Cameron and German chancellor Angela Merkel during the EU leaders summit in response to the migrant crisis. Photograph: Reuters

 

As the world watched footage of desperate migrants scrambling to reach European shores this week, the need for a global and European response to the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean quickly became apparent.

Some believe this week may prove be a turning point for the European Union, the moment it woke up and began to take seriously an issue it has struggled to deal with for years. For others, yesterday’s summit was stopgap measure, delivering short-term solutions to the migrant issue.

“This is a summit for messaging, not a summit for finalising details,” said one senior EU diplomat ahead of the summit.

In terms of concrete measures, the EU delivered on its promise to deal with the immediate crisis of how to stop the escalating death toll in the Mediterranean. Leaders agreed to triple funding for its search-and- rescue operation, Triton, bringing it to the same level of funding earmarked for the Mare Nostrum project. a doubling of funding and an increase in resources for Frontex, the EU’s border-control agency.

As part of this commitment a number of countries including Ireland, Britain and Germany have pledged to send naval vessels to the region.

Climb-down

Europe

But while yesterday’s decision to bulk up Frontex is welcome, little progress was made on other suggestions under consideration last night. The proposal to resettle refugees across Europe will now be a “voluntary” and “pilot” project, with no target figure agreed. It remains to be seen if Ireland and other countries will participate.

Similarly, the question of how to engage with so-called “countries of origin”, including the possibility of targeting and destroying migrant ships before they depart from the coast of North Africa, was not resolved.

In many ways, the lack of concrete decisions on other possible EU responses to the migration crisis is inevitable.

The issue of migration, which falls under the remit of justice and home-affairs ministers, is a notoriously tricky EU policy area, involving a complex web of different national laws on immigration and asylum.

Many of the measures under consideration are also mired in legal difficulties. For example, member states are strongly divided over the issue of whether the deployment of a naval or land mission under the EU’s common security and defence policy would need a UN Security Council mandate. However, Jean-Claude Juncker insisted last night that Triton is already operating as a defacto search-and-rescue mission.

Other technical challenges surround the resettlement question. Even if member states agreed to accept a share of refugees on a proportionate basis, the Schengen area’s free-travel zone means resettled migrants could travel on to other member states after they arrive in their allotted country.

Highly charged

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Nonetheless, officials in Brussels believe this week’s summit has given fresh political impetus to measures that have been circulating for years on immigration, some of which are included in the communiqué issued by EU leaders last night.

Whether these measures will be enough to stop the humanitarian crisis unfolding on Europe’s doorstep seems unlikely. As European Council president Donald Tusk said: “Nobody has any illusions that we can solve the problem today. We cannot, because the real causes are war, instability and poverty in the whole region.”

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