There is a very big hole in Keir Starmer’s plan to do a deal with the EU over migrants, offering to take asylum-seekers from elsewhere on the continent in return for France and other countries agreeing to take back those who have arrived in Britain illegally on small boats. How on Earth does he expect the EU to agree to a deal with Britain when it cannot even sort out the issue of migrants between its own members?
What Starmer is proposing is how Europe’s asylum system ought to work in practice. Asylum-seekers should be obliged to make their claims in the first safe country in which they land, with those who travel between safe countries swiftly returned either to the first safe country in which they set foot – if not straight back home. As part of the deal, the burden of dealing with asylum applicants ought to be shared fairly between EU states.
But the EU has failed to build an effective system, with the result that the 7,000 migrants who arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday and Thursday alone (outnumbering the island’s permanent population of 6,000) are not going to be redistributed around Europe – Italy is going to be left to deal with them pretty much by itself. In 2023 so far it has had to handle 124,000 arrivals.
While the EU has had a resettlement scheme for asylum applications since 2015, it is voluntary and many member states have never played ball. In 2022, for example, Cyprus was left to handle 22,190 asylum applications – 24,119 for every million inhabitants – while Hungary handled just 45, a mere 4.7 for every million inhabitants. (The Hungarian figure does not include refugees from Ukraine. Over 50,000 are recorded since the start of the war in 2022, with over 3.4 million border crossings from Ukraine to Hungary).
Even the countries which have previously sought to take a fair share are wobbling. Germany (243,835 applications in 2022; 2,892 for every million inhabitants) last week announced it was suspending its agreement to take asylum seekers from Italy. Meanwhile the Belgian government said it intends to ignore a ruling from its supreme court that its policy of denying shelter to single young men seeking asylum was unlawful.
Having sovereignty over Lampedusa – the closest point of the EU to the failed state of Libya – is, in other words, just Italy’s hard luck. The same applies to Greece and its proximity to the Turkish coast, and to Cyprus – the most obvious first European calling point for refugees from Syria. So much for the grandiose principle of free movement, on which the EU refused to compromise during David Cameron’s ill-fated pre-referendum negotiations. When it comes to asylum applicants, EU member states are quick to roll out the barbed wire – literally in the case of Hungary which hurriedly built a Trump-style fence to keep out migrants heading up from Greece towards Germany.
If the EU cannot reach agreement on the fundamental issue of how to deal with migrants, then what is the point of it at all? Migration has the potential to rip apart the EU. When previously migrant-friendly countries like Germany and Sweden start to wash their hands of migrants who arrive on Europe’s southern shores, it is rapidly going to end up as a case of every country for itself. This will inevitably bring quite a reaction from those countries highly exposed to migrant flows.
Little over a decade ago it looked as if the EU could be pulled down by the sovereign debt crisis greatly exacerbated by the Euro. The EU just about survived that. But don’t bet your last Euro on the EU surviving the migrant crisis. The lofty ideals which are supposed to underpin the bloc have been tested to the limit – and found to have about the same structural integrity as Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete.