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Migrant crisis: can Europe’s leaders deliver real change or will it be business as usual?

Hundreds more migrants rescued as they flee violence and conflict in Africa. EPA/Alessandro Di Meo

European leaders have assembled in Brussels in an attempt to come up with a way of preventing the deaths of hundreds of migrants as they try to escape conflict and poverty in Africa by crossing the Mediterranean. But at the special European summit on Thursday, the unity of purpose which European leaders were proclaiming in their response to migrants at the weekend appeared to have faded.

The result is relatively narrow agreement on an immediate emergency response to enhance search and rescue capabilities, and on investigating proposals for a militarised response to dealing with smugglers. The problem has moved from being seen as a complex humanitarian, social, economic and political problem, to being seen as a problem of criminality and illegal migration.

Member states – rather than the EU – set migration policy. And with countries understandably unwilling to give the EU a mandate to act in this area, but also historically unable to agree among themselves about practical initiatives, this European Council meeting seems significant. Yet the key areas where member states agreed to act collectively, and to endorse a role for the European Commission (“Brussels”) were quite predictable.

Other measures remain off the table. Concrete EU-wide policies, and resources, to support the accommodation of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and processing of asylum applications, are not detailed. There is deafening silence on the question of how the absence of legitimate routes to migrate to the EU leads people to travel on these dangerous routes to Europe.

Search and rescue

There are three major proposals agreed, although details remain unexplained, and will be vital in determining how effective they will be.

The first is the tripling of the funding and assets (boats and aerial surveillance) for Frontex’s Triton mission. This was designed to create a significant political message and it has captured the headlines. Triton’s funding will match directly the resources which funded the Italian navy’s search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum. European leaders it seems, have been stung by criticisms of how their lack of commitment to joint action has led to foreseeable deaths.

How long this extended funding is committed for is unclear. Nor does it mean turning Triton into a search-and-rescue mission. It was argued that trying to change Frontex’s mandate would involve a long political and legal process – and enhancing its surveillance capacity immediately would enable it to act more effectively in response to distress calls.

Another headline-grabbing change is new commitments from member states to contribute national resources to search and rescue operations. A closer look shows that these resource commitments may be more limited in practice – in the case of the UK, they maybe limited to only two months: in this case, the assistance would be withdrawn even before the peak season for crossings begins.

Limited resettlement

The second key proposal is to develop an EU-co-ordinated pilot programme to resettle the migrants coming across the Mediterranean. This would apparently provide places for some people to be re-settled in countries other than the ones they enter.

For the first time, this assigns the EU – probably through the European Commission or one its agencies – the role of co-ordinating a migration programme. However, it’s clear that member states are not fully agreed on this policy. Participation by member states in this programme is necessarily voluntary, as the EU has no mechanism for formally organising resettlement among member states. The success of the programme will depend on whether countries are willing to take part - and we already have indications that [many are not](](France, the UK, Finland among others).

On the offensive

There seems to be the most agreement on the third proposal. This is to ask the commissioner for foreign relations to investigate the possibility of moving towards a policy of seizing and destroying boats being used to traffic migrants across the sea.

Business as usual at the EU as well. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

This proposal is highly speculative, and perhaps for that reason, easy for member states to agree on. To undertake such a military-style mission in the Mediterranean might require a UN mandate, and given current relations between the EU and Russia, this seems unlikely to be forthcoming.

This third option reflects the focus on illegal migration and criminality at the European Council meeting. It means that national political leaders can be seen to be doing something about the crisis without having to answer questions about accepting refugees.

Same old story

So far, then, the response to the tragedies looks increasingly like business-as-usual. There are more resources pledged for search and rescue in today’s blaze of publicity, but details of that deployment will not be clear for some days or weeks.

Overall, the summit outcome reflects a long-standing pattern in EU policy-making on migration in the Mediterranean. The high degree of conflict among member states has frequently lead to political stalemate and agreements are only reached on the minimal shared responses.

Such policies of the lowest common denominator have proved inadequate for dealing with the political, social, economic and humanitarian problems raised by migration across the Mediterranean. The risk is that once the headlines have faded, that this summit of European leaders will prove similarly inadequate.

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