The EU likes to give itself ultimatums that it ends up not sticking to. Unfortunately, though, Europe’s leaders may have no choice on the migration issue. The refugee crisis has turned into a sword of Damocles that’s hanging over countries and cities, security and openness, national and European identity as well as social and economic interests. The migration issue has the power to destroy the European project.
One thing is certain: The migration problem that Europe is facing won’t just go away. The decline in asylum applications in 2017 was not a sign that the problem has been overcome. On the contrary — even though many Europeans only became aware of the challenges posed by refugees in 2015 when Angela Merkel opened the doors to a million desperate people seeking asylum, southern Europe has been grappling with this situation for years.
The odyssey of the rescue boat MS Aquarius illustrates the urgency of the problem. The ship run by a Franco-German charity rescued 630 migrants and refugees from the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. First the new Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, refused to allow the ship to dock in Italy. Then Malta too rejected the refugees. In the end Spain permitted the Aquarius to enter the port of Valencia.
We need a completely fresh start
The drama received intense media coverage. Populists seized on it, making it even harder to find a rational solution to the migrant problem. French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy’s populist government of “cynicism and irresponsibility.” In Germany, a dispute over migration is splitting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet and threatening the survival of her coalition government.
There will inevitably be more ships like the Aquarius. However, Europe can’t afford to repeat the drama every time a boat appears on the horizon. It’s time for the EU to close the gap between its mantra about solidarity and its actual behavior.
So what now? Migration will top the agenda of the EU summit at the weekend but there’s little reason to hope there will be significant progress. There’s no sign whatsoever of a political consensus emerging in the EU. We need to stop lamenting the intransigence of some member countries and bickering about dictates from Brussels. We need a completely fresh start. There has been progress in many areas such as burden-sharing on the intake of refugees, the reform and strengthening of Europe’s border force and coastal patrols, agreements with other countries to take back migrants and development aid. But it’s not enough.
Out of sight
There is a further, difficult proposal: to set up migration and resettlement centers outside the EU. It’s difficult because the proposal echoes Australia’s problematic approach of holding migrants on islands such as Nauru und Papua New Guinea, in many cases for years, out of sight and largely forgotten. But the European Council is now considering precisely such disembarkation platforms, and it should. Europe shouldn’t simply copy Australia. However, setting up these platforms in third-party countries — where migration and resettlement would really be processed — could offer real advantages. This would also avoid dramas like that of the Aquarius.
Disembarkation platforms could permit a more controlled assessment of which migrants are entitled to legal protection by the EU before they get resettled. If migrants know that they can’t set foot on European soil without first proving their right to asylum, it’s less likely that those who have no such right will fall for the human traffickers offering dangerous passages to Europe.
If the EU is to survive the migrant crisis, its members must work together. Disembarkation platforms in third-party countries pose legal, ethical and financial questions. But they’re solvable. The future of the EU could depend on them.
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