Opinion piece published on The Journal on Saturday 28th April 2018
Recently the LE Samuel Beckett set sail for the Mediterranean to assist with “Operation Sophia” – the EU naval operation designed to save lives. Throughout 2015 and 2016, a day hardly passed when migration was not a headline in the media. Thousands of people lost their lives in this period when their boats capsized en route to Greece and Italy from countries such as Libya. This mass migration to Europe presented the EU with one of the biggest challenges it has ever faced. The last time Europe faced such a large number of refugees was in the mid-1990s following the Yugoslav wars.
The issue might not be in the headlines now, but it could be very quickly. It is still a real issue of humanitarian relief. Already this year 559 have died. From 2015 to 2017 over 6,000 died making the perilous journey. As the Summer months approach and the Mediterranean sea becomes calmer – we can expect this number to increase. This issue has not gone away.
The EU failed to respond
At the peak of the crisis in 2015, the EU could not agree a way forward. Member States did not do enough. This is understandable at one level. Migration is a very emotional issue. The recent elections in Italy – a country severely impacted by the migration crisis – were dominated by migration and asylum issues. Similarly, migration was a big issue in last year’s German elections.
Action may have been slow but last year the EU received 43% fewer asylum applications. The large reception centres set up in Greece and Italy to deal with refugees are gradually reverting to their original function and the number of crossings in the Mediterranean have reduced. This was achieved by a number of actions including the EU-Turkey agreement, the establishment of the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, the deployment of naval ships in the Mediterranean Sea and other steps to secure the external borders of the EU. These actions made a difference. But in the long run, were they more than just a sticking plaster?
While the acute crisis may have ended for now, it is far from an ideal or normal. There is no simple solution to this issue. The root causes rest in the complex political conflicts of several African and Middle Eastern countries. The EU needs to be at the forefront of helping to bring a settlement to many of these conflicts. The Syrian civil war has displaced over 11 million people and over 500,000 have been killed in the 7-year war. Europe more than any other region must invest, subsidise and help to guarantee the peace – when it is won.
Instead, we must work to limit the crisis. An essential part of this is to ensure that our external borders are secure, that we can process asylum applications more swiftly and that we have a strong returns policy for people not in need of protection.
There are three fundamental steps that I believe needs to be taking if we are to prevent a return to the crisis of 2015/2016. Firstly, we need to secure our external border. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which currently deploys equipment to border areas under pressure and assists with return operations needs to have greater control. We need one agency securing the EU’s borders. Many Member States such as Greece have been reluctant to give stronger powers to the agency. If we are serious in securing the EU borders, we need a consistent approach that is well resourced.
Secondly, we need one agency to process asylum applications. The European Commission suggested this idea in 2016 but many Member States have been unwilling to act. One agency with branches in each Member State would increase the processing time of asylum applications and ensure a consistent approach. We also need to fundamentally revise the Dublin convention.
Thirdly, we need better co-ordination on migration policy. Europe needs a bigger population and especially in Member States with a demographic profile that is aging. We have a shrinking working age population. As a way of reducing illegal migration and at the same time enhancing EU relations with third countries as well addressing our aging population problem – we should establish a proper green card system that applies across the EU. This would allow a legally safe route for people who want a better way of life in Europe. Nevertheless, doing it in a way that Member States can control it at a European level.
Getting consensus amongst all EU Member States to agree to some or indeed all of the ideas above is a tall order. We need to be ambitious. We need to put in place a consistent and permanent solution to this issue. A solution that offers hope to people looking for a better way of life. But also a solution that can gain and maintain popular support. Building walls will not solve this problem. Neither can the EU provide a home for everyone. It has to be managed. The best way never to return to the chaos of three years ago is to do something now. The only way to prevent another crisis is to act as one.