The European commission has accused Britain’s home secretary of not knowing what she was talking about when she criticised new and radical plans for the sharing of refugees across the EU in response to the Mediterranean migrant boat emergency.
The commission outlined its plans on Wednesday for a new system of quotas in resettling asylum seekers still outside the EU and in redistributing more equitably those already in Europe. Britain, which is exempted from the proposed new regime unless it decides to take part, has robustly rubbished the scheme and vowed it will have no truck with it. Prior to their publication, the home secretary, Theresa May, said the EU plans would make the migration crisis worse.
Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European commission, said the blueprint for a new immigration system in Europe would “prompt debate and attract criticism”.
But he argued that May’s rejection was half-baked.
“I have the highest regard for British intelligence,” he said. “But I’m not sure that Theresa May has read all the plans we have made. What will make the situation worse is doing nothing.”
Inaction in the face of tragedy in the Mediterranean would destroy European credibility, he argued. “I wonder how anyone could maintain this could make the situation worse,” he said.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, echoed the reproach to the home secretary after May singled her out for criticism and said the migrants crossing the Mediterranean should be turned back.
Under the Geneva conventions governing treatment of refugees, it was impossible to return those fleeing immediately, said Mogherini. “All the people we save at sea will not be turned back,” she said.
In reference to May’s comments, Mogherini said: “I believe there’s been a little bit of misinterpretation. I don’t know if intentional, probably not.”
Amid a battery of policy moves on migration, many of them entailing a reinforcement of “Fortress Europe” measures to make it more difficult for economic migrants to enter the EU from north and sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the commission proposed three big shifts on European refugee-sharing and quotas which, if realised, would constitute the beginnings of a coherent European policy on immigration.
One short-term measure was to share 20,000 migrants who have not made the Mediterranean crossing and have been identified by the UN refugee agency as qualifying for protection. This would be funded by €50m (£36m), with Brussels effectively paying countries to take in migrants according to a distribution key based on population size, national wealth, numbers of asylum seekers already present, and unemployment levels. If Britain participated, it would be allocated 2,309 of the 20,000.
The second short-term measure, the details of which follow in a fortnight, would compel the rest of the EU to help relieve the flood of migrants into Italy and Greece. No figures for redistribution have yet been agreed.
The longer term and more fundamental policy shift was to propose a permanent system for refugee redistribution whenever there is a “mass influx” into Europe. There is not yet any definition of what constitutes a mass influx and again no figures were mentioned.
The commission proposals will need to be backed by the EU’s national governments by a qualified majority, which already appears assured. Germany is a strong supporter of the plans, not least because under the general quota calculations it would see its share of asylum seekers roughly halved, from more than a third of the EU total at the moment to just over 18%.
Britain, Ireland, and Denmark enjoy special exemptions on justice and home affairs policies in the EU, including asylum matters, and do not need to take part. Before seeing the detail of the legislation that will need to be tabled, the British Home Office has already flatly refused to be involved.
The UK’s exclusion from the proposed new regime will have an impact on British immigration policy in ways that are not yet clear. For example, Timmermans said that to turn the proposals into a new system “we are going to have to revisit Dublin III. We are indeed going to have to revisit the system.”
The EU’s Dublin regulation stipulates that an asylum seeker has to lodge the claim in the first EU country he or she enters and that if the claimant applies elsewhere, he or she can be deported to the first country of entry. Britain takes part in this system and uses it to deport asylum seekers who arrived in the UK via another EU country. If the Dublin rules are changed to facilitate the new system, it is not clear whether Britain would be able to opt in to one part while opting out of the bigger element.
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