Europe has finally woken up to migrant deaths in the Med – but can it deliver a united response?

The EU needs to agree a concrete migration policy. EPA/Alessandro Di Meo

It is common to describe the deaths of hundreds of people in the Mediterranean sea over the last few days as “a tragedy” and “a crisis”. The suffering of victims, their families and their home communities is indeed shocking and extreme. Yet the idea that this is a tragedy and crisis is perhaps misleading.

What makes something a tragedy is that it is a fateful, unpredictable and unpreventable event. A crisis on the other hand is a problem that has recently become suddenly more urgent and extreme. The recent deaths in the Mediterranean were none of these.

On the contrary, they were predictable, and predicted. Since the summer of 2014, the UNHCR has put out 10 statements calling for action to prevent the deaths of migrants putting to sea in the Mediterranean. Over the past five years at least, several thousand people have died in the Mediterranean in capsized boats and these have periodically hit the news headlines. However, up until now, the pattern of the political response in Europe has also been largely predictable and mostly ineffective.

This is for two main reasons. First because the migration across the Mediterranean represents a difficult political, social and economic problem, with complex origins. Secondly, because there has been political stalemate in the EU about the responsibilities of different member states and about what “burden-sharing” means in practice.

Could this time be different?

There is evidence to support the idea that this time the political response in the EU might be different comes from several sources.

The current EU commission, lead by Jean-Claude Juncker, had already prioritised the issue of migration in its “political guidelines. Now there has been a marked change of tone in the declarations from the European Commission.

These were previously characterised by a barely concealed frustration with the resistance of member states to resolve questions of burden sharing. But following the most recent deaths, European Council vice-president Federica Mogherini talked of "finally” securing a “European response” while an agreement to deal with the issue was referred to by Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, as a “shared responsibility”.

A rare show of unity: Dimitris Avramopoulos and Federica Mogherini at the joint European Council meeting. EPA/Julien Warnand

The apparent success of Mare Nostrum and the predicted drastic human cost of its withdrawal and then replacement with the relatively limited EU-level Triton mission has been pivotal in justifying the need to enhance Triton – and, now, to extend its mission. In particular, this evidence seems to have stung the German government into a volte face on the need to enhance the EU’s mission in the Mediterranean.

What is proposed?

The ten-point plan agreed by ministers on Monday has at its heart a very significant change in the level of EU (as opposed to member-state) involvement in regulating the Mediterranean. For this a legal mandate is required (points one and two of the plan). This would change the balance of authority between member-state action and that of the EU in the Mediterranean, strongly in favour of the EU.

This would also involve a considerably higher level of militarisation of the Mediterranean, especially if a new or expanded mission gains a mandate to destroy boats used to carry irregular migrants. Other significant measures which would further “Europeanise” policy in this area are the deployment of EU-mandated asylum officers in Italy and Greece and of immigration liaison officers in transit countries.

The EU is also going to provide support to the main entry countries for enhancing “rapid return” (Avramopoulos called these “front-line states”), involving more flights back to countries of transit and origin. Member states are tasked specifically with ensuring that all migrants have fingerprints taken and are screened and recorded, as a way of monitoring irregular migration, dealing with smugglers and identifying those in need of protection.

There are only two proposals, both much more speculative than the other points, which refer to supporting migrants on arrival. One is a proposal for a possible, very limited – and pilot – resettlement programme across the EU (point 7). The other is to have a review to consider policy options on how to accommodate migrants in emergency situations (point 6).

What are the barriers?

There remain significant barriers to the successful implementation of real change in policy on this issue. The first barrier is that real political commitment for the ten-point plan is not yet secured. For this, agreement in Thursday’s extraordinary meeting of EU member state heads of government will be required.

Yet there is still evidence of political reluctance to substantially enhance support for an EU search-and-rescue operation – notably from the UK. However, it is also notable that the UK is also keen to focus on smugglers and trafficking operations, a policy on which most member states can agree.

It is relatively straightforward to gain agreement from member states for those measures which justify higher security and more militarisation of the Mediterranean. Agreement on the proposals for speedy and humanitarian processing of aslyum applications, accommodation and settlement of refugees will be more difficult to generate.

This brings us to the second major barrier to real change in policy – and that involves more critical reflections on the ten-point plan and its proposals. Seven of the ten measures – and all those most concretely proposed – revolve around enhancing security and military policy responses. These policies reflect the way in which the EU has historically responded to irregular migration, but they are unlikely to solve the problem in the long term.

Most EU member states have recognised the importance of development to reduce irregular migration, but little concrete action is forthcoming so far. Meanwhile, most migrants from outside the EU have little or no access to legal routes to migration, as immigration policies of member states remain highly restrictive. Yet the political conflict, economic inequalities and social harm which drive people to abandon their homes are increasing, not decreasing.

Unless and until the EU has secured agreement from member states for a set of policy measures which involve more than picking people up, destroying their ramshackle boats, fingerprinting them, putting them on planes and sending them back to the countries they have come from and travelled through, then this is not a European solution to endorse.

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