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Immigration to become more poisonous issue as EU backs quota system

Monday, 11 May 2015

Member countries are deeply divided over proposals that would distribute asylum seekers more equitably across the union.

It is one of the most toxic issues in European politics. And immigration is set to get more poisonous this week when Brussels throws its weight behind a new quota system that would share the load of immigrants more equitably, but bindingly, among the 28 countries.

The commission proposal, obtained by the Guardian and being unveiled on Wednesday, is incendiary for many of the national leaders, not least the freshly re-elected UK prime minister, David Cameron, although it will be welcomed as sensible and long overdue by immigration professionals.

The crisis in the Mediterranean and the prospect of a summer of people drowning in their thousands, virtually live on the television and laptop screens of Europe, has acted as a game changer. Accused of dragging its feet, being in denial, and failing to respond to tragedy on Europe’s southern shores, the EU has suddenly become proactive rather than merely reactive, and at an unusual speed by Brussels’ standards.

Two big moves are afoot – the attempt to introduce a quota system for spreading refugees across Europe and the quest for a UN mandate empowering the Europeans to launch military action against the migrant trafficking networks that seem to be about the only business flourishing in the failing state of Libya.

Militarily and logistically, the use of force looks immensely problematic. But politically, at least in Europe, the military option is the easy bit. All 28 governments are said in Brussels to be supportive of the plans to hit the smugglers and blow up their vessels.

Immigrant quotas are much more difficult. There is no chance of consensus emerging quickly. The Mediterranean frontline states of Italy, Greece, and Malta are in favour of the refugee-sharing proposals for obvious reasons. Germany, leading the campaign, along with Sweden and Austria are also in favour, for the straightforward reason that they take in much more asylum seekers than the others and a quota system would bring them a net reduction.

Cameron, confident and revitalised, is trying to get the rest of the EU to agree to curbs on migration within the union (freedom of movement) and will not countenance a bigger British quota, especially if it is set by Brussels. Ditto the Danes and the Dutch. The French will be intensely wary given the electoral gains being made by Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant Front National.

And the eastern Europeans, who take in hardly any asylum seekers, do not want to break that habit. Perhaps for domestic political reasons and because he is bleeding support to the neo-fascist extreme right, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán shows every sign of wanting to be the EU’s hardline anti-immigration cheerleader.

For the UN’s refugee agency and other professionals in the field, such as the International Organisation for Migration, one of the most sensible suggestions from the commission in Brussels is that legal ways have to be made available for entering the EU for migrants judged clearly to be imperilled and needing protection.

This is another red line for some, not least Theresa May, the UK home secretary, who has repeatedly argued at meetings of EU interior ministers that this is the wrong way to tackle the emergency.

The commission’s blueprint is surprisingly radical, going much further than had been expected. Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, has been emboldened by the decision of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to come out publicly for a quota system.

But the attempt to launch a more coherent and more equitable Europe-wide immigration regime, however ill-fated it turns out to be, is also a measure of how the tragedies in the Mediterranean are shifting policymaking in Europe.

Source: The Guardian

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