EU states are losing sight of our shared values as the world watches us deal with the refugee crisis

14th September will be a key date for the EU - we can show solidarity with each other or stand divided. The UK shouldn't be afraid to take the lead in compassionate policy

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David Cameron, stung into action by public opinion this week, has made an announcement which at first glance seems like a generous change in UK policy. The amount of aid, for instance, is high - second only to the US. But in the coming days it will come to be seen as deeply cynical - and it will also lead to damage to some key critical decisions which EU Member States had to take together with the UK.

What David Cameron has done with the £600 million in aid is to match the generosity of donors such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In common with them, he has continued the UK's policy of giving aid generously to refugee camps while doing everything possible to avoid the tough decisions of emergency relocation and re-settlement of refugees. This policy of the UK is not new.

In its most brutal form, the UK's legal opt out could be seen in its withdrawal from search and rescue in the Mediterranean where the UK withdrew support for Mare Nostrum and later under pressure re-instated HMS Bulwark - which has itself now been retired. Yet Britain led with the view in the EU that search and rescue would only “encourage” refugees - a view which has widely been seen as risible in relation to Mediterranean crossing.

Like those small Middle Eastern countries, giving a high amount of aid while avoiding taking significant refugee numbers has placed the UK in a club it should not be in. Germany, while leading on refugee policy for Europe, has itself contributed €255 million in aid for 2015 alone. It is absolutely clear which direction the UK continues to move in.

The next two weeks in the European Union will be a critical period. Key discussions will take place this week in Strasbourg, followed by a crucial meeting of the Member States' Interior Ministers on 14th September. If on this date the EU has not put together a significantly upgraded, strengthened and credible policy on search and rescue, reception centres, re-settlement, emergency relocation and possibly legal routes for asylum-seekers, then we will know that we are failing Aylan Kurdi and all like him who have looked to the European Union for refuge.

What will progress look like for the UK and EU if both are serious? For the UK it is with sorrow rather than anger that we already see a government being dragged into positive action by widening outrage but whose default position in the European Union is to operate on “opt-out” from most refugee and immigration policy. It is crucial that on September 14 the UK signals that it will “opt-in” to co-ordinate EU action for an organised and compassionate solution to the refugee crisis working with other EU countries in solidarity.

Other countries who have an “opt-out” such as Ireland have shown that it is possible to opt-in anyway - as they are currently doing with search and rescue in the Mediterranean.

It is difficult for the EU states to look into the eyes of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan - who have taken millions of refugees in the last few months. While the UK gives development aid to Syria, it is particularly culpable in the insignificant number of Syrian refugees it has resettled: the lowest in the EU up till now. Now that the EU and the world as a whole are watching, it would be particularly shameful for the UK to continue to “opt-out” from these issues. The UK wants to cherry-pick refugees from camps but not touch refugees who have come to the shores of Europe. How can this be a sustainable position for a large EU Member State? It's simply untenable.

There must be an understanding of the special nature of this humanitarian crisis. Some Member States have displayed reactions which are deeply shaming for the EU and its values, in the light of recent events in Hungary and the Czech Republic. Clear leadership must be taken by the bigger EU Member States to reassert moral authority and to wipe away the lame excuses peddled over issues such as the Dublin Convention - which, along with many asylum directives, has not been operated properly for many years.

 

 

 

Hungary's insistence on operating the Dublin Convention when Germany has relaxed it for the correct decent and compassionate reasons is where the European Union should be, not where Viktor Orban's Hungary currently is.

On September 14th, it is time for a comprehensive plan to ensure the scenes we see around Europe's borders are brought under control. There is no reason why this shouldn't be done with compassion and with solidarity between EU Member States. Public concern may be flowing now among the UK public, but even when those espousing it inevitably lose interest, it's important that legal routes and humanitarian visas for asylum seekers are discussed - two strategies which could be serious antidotes to the current growth in human trafficking and smuggling.

The EU and now the UK has a moment in which to express its values now. Let us hope it makes the right decisions on refugees. For once, the whole world will be watching.

Claude Moraes MEP is chair of the European Parliament’s home affairs committee and the former director of the refugee charity Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI)

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