European integration

Europe has made tragedy a political crisis

Europeans should help; not so long ago, they were the ones desperately asking, says Peter Sutherland

Faced with a tragedy in the Mediterranean, the EU risks transforming it into a self-inflicted political crisis that could divide the union.

After 900 people died on a single day, Europe was shocked into expanding its maritime presence. The carnage slowed: more than 1,500 died in April; just a few dozen in May. The European Commission then offered proposals to impose greater order on the chaos of human flows into Europe. It broke the crisis into three challenges: saving lives; protecting refugees; and thwarting smugglers.

The first was addressed by permanently expanding the seaborne search-and-rescue campaign. Member states did not want the moral taint of having desperate refugees die on their watch.

The commission’s proposal for protecting asylum seekers after rescue was equally commonsensical. Brussels said responsibility for processing asylum applications and hosting refugees should be shared across all EU states. Yet this set off a firestorm. At present, a handful of countries bear most of the burden. Politicians in countries that benefit from the status quo refused to support it. Estonia and Slovakia – each of which would have to take a few hundred refugees – are resisting. One wonders what the eastern

European refugees embraced by the west during the cold war might think.

Others obfuscated, dubbing the commission proposal a “migrant quota”, blurring the line between migrants and refugees. This is fiction. The commission has not suggested distributing economic migrants across the EU. This is about asylum seekers, who enjoy safeguards under international law.Economic migrants do not; the EU regularly returns them to their countries of origin.

Reasonable people might disagree about the details of the plan. Its so-called “distribution key” relies on a formula that takes into account a country’s population, economic output, unemployment rate, and how many refugees and asylum seekers it has accepted since 2010. But reasonable people would sit down to fine-tune it, not reject it outright. That only makes a future compromise even more difficult.

The response to the commission’s plan to resettle refugees was equally irresponsible. Resettlement involves taking refugees who have undergone rigorous health and security screening, which can take two years, and bringing them to host countries. This would save lives, by obviating the need for at least some risky sea crossings. It would signal to Europeans that an orderly system is in place. Twenty thousand people would be resettled. Compare this to the 1m refugees shoehorned into tiny Lebanon, with a total population of 4m, or to the 800,000 in Jordan, almost as small. These countries are overwhelmed.

No one is calling on the EU to do the impossible. But surely 500m EU citizens have enough generosity and resources to help at least a few hundred thousand — or even a few million — people who have lost everything. Not so long ago, Europeans themselves were desperately asking for such help.

The third commission proposal targets smugglers. But even if the EU stops all smugglers, an unlikely prospect, where would that leave the world’s 16.5m refugees? Europe will have cemented a reputation as being hostile to foreigners, and it will leave angry partners throughout Africa and the Middle East bearing almost the entire burden of the refugee crisis. These are conditions that would only elevate the far right and its principles.

Most Europeans are neither mean-spirited nor racist. They do not want to see families perishing in the seas. They want their governments to be in control of who enters Europe, and how. European leaders can deliver this while doing right by international law, and without undermining the union’s economy and foreign relations.

This article first appeared in The Financial Times on 22 May 2015.