Wednesday

23rd Aug 2017

Opinion

EU needs lasting solution to refugee crisis

  • The number of migrants arriving across the Mediterranean to Italy has increased markedly in the last two to three years. (Photo: Flickr)

In the summer of 2015, images of the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores dominated the front pages of European newspapers.

Journalists from every major publication were themselves migrating daily to new flashpoints, border fences or makeshift camps – chasing the latest scoop or story. Alongside this blanket media coverage came political urgency.

Heads of state and government met on an almost monthly basis to discuss the issue. However, as soon as the stories began disappearing from the front pages so did the political will to do something.

Despite the receding media coverage, the issue has not gone way.

While the numbers arriving in Greece have declined since the middle of 2015, the numbers arriving across the Mediterranean to Italy have increased markedly in the last two to three years.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants that have been rescued by the Italian navy and are now waiting in reception centres or being housed by local authorities, many of which are stretched to their limits. Despite warnings from the Italian government, most EU member state continue to ignore the situation.

Member state inaction

The newly elected president in France, Emmanuel Macron, has refused to open French ports to migrants and, in Austria, the foreign minister and defence minister even threatened to send the army to the Italian border to stop migrants crossing.

We are reaching another tipping point. Earlier this month we called for an extraordinary European Council summit to discuss migration before the summer break. National governments replied that this could wait till the autumn. This is simply not acceptable.

The most frustrating issue is that it does not need to be this way.

We are a continent of 500 million people and one of the richest regions of the planet – the arrival of a few hundred thousand refugees and migrants is manageable if we organise ourselves effectively.

Some national politicians have recognised this. Recently, Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni and German Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz both called for a European approach to managing migration.

It is clear this is the only viable option, yet certain national governments are still actively undermining any attempts to fix the system.

This is most evident in Hungary, where prime minister Victor Orban is demonising migrants and the EU to try and bolster his flagging poll numbers.

Under the scheme approved by the European Council last year to relocate refugees, Hungary – a country of ten million – would take just 1,000 people. So far, they have failed to relocate any. We cannot allow this to continue.

EU solidarity

Solidarity works both ways – you cannot expect ever-increasing funds from the EU while refusing the responsibilities that come with membership. Therefore, we fully support the Commission’s decision to start infringement procedures against member states that have not met their legal obligations.

However, simply enforcing the existing rules is not enough. We need a wholesale change to our asylum and migration policies so they are fit to deal with the new reality in Europe.

First and foremost we need to reform the Dublin system, under which refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU member state they reach. This system leaves countries on Europe's borders, such as Italy or Greece, to face the burden alone and allows other countries to shun their humanitarian responsibilities.

We need to replace it with a centralised European system that allocates refugees, but also so-called economic migrants, in a fair and transparent way. This would make the relocation system permanent, with sanctions for member states that refuse to take their fair share of refugees.

We need to get out of the mind-set that the crisis of 2015 was a one-off event. Demographic changes, continuing instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and long-term issues such as poverty and climate change mean that large-scale migration to Europe is going to be a fact for decades to come.

Preventing illegal migration must go hand-in-hand with creating safe legal ways for asylum seekers and economic migrants to reach Europe. We must also play a bigger role in stabilising Libya, where the majority of migrants are now departing from. Until Libya is stable, flows will only increase.

In the longer-term, Europe needs to recognise that Africa’s development is not a secondary consideration, but in Europe’s vital interests.

We are calling for a true EU-Africa strategy, based on investment, education and sustainable development.

Thanks to the important work of Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, this has started, but there is still much more work to be done. Only by addressing why people are leaving their homes in the first place can we effectively manage the situation.

Ultimately, if we do not adapt the rules and structures of our migration policy, so that all member states share responsibility and have an interest in addressing the issue, then divisions will harden between those that face the brunt of the crisis and those who ignore it.

If we continue with the failed approach of the last two years then this could become a systemic crisis that threatens the EU itself.

Gianni Pittella is an Italian MEP and the president of the S&D Group in the European Parliament.

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