EU plans over asylum applications play into the hands of Brexit campaigners

There is a significant risk to making the proposal for centralised asylum for refugees in the lead up to the EU referendum 

Memphis Barker
Monday 07 March 2016 20:07 GMT
The number of refugees making it into the EU now is 10 times higher than it was at the same time last year
The number of refugees making it into the EU now is 10 times higher than it was at the same time last year (Getty Images)

You could describe it as the one asylum policy to rule them all. As things stand, each EU member state can choose who to grant refugee status and who to turn away. So, in 2015, Malta took a liberal view (accepting 84 per cent of all applications), but Poland, part of the truculent Visegrad group, was far stingier (accepting just 15 per cent).

That’s how a loose, federal-asylum system works.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. Yesterday it was revealed that the EU plans to assume control of asylum applications, in what would – by any yardstick – be the most-dramatic transfer of sovereignty since the euro.

Under the proposal, a central European office will decide whether, for example, an Eritrean deserves to be given shelter in the EU. If the answer is yes, Brussels would also then determine where that person should be placed – could be Germany, could be the Czech Republic.

I am one of those people who still believes that a central authority sharing out asylum-seekers across the bloc represents the best way forward.

We want Brussels to act as the strongman. And our case goes like this: whatever EU leaders claimed at yesterday’s summit, it is unlikely that Turkey will in reality take back thousands of migrants from Greece. Nor would it be a good bet to trust the Turks to close their borders to Syrians trying to leave for Europe.

So, more refugees will arrive (the number now making it into the EU is 10 times higher than it was at the same time last year), and there are already thousands too many languishing in countries, like Greece, that cannot provide adequate shelter.

Spread these people out, we say. The short-term, economic burden will be repaid in the long-term. Carping about cultural barriers should not be dismissed out of hand, but one Krakow resident’s vague sense of discomfort does not outweigh a fugitive from Aleppo’s right to protection.

That is the theory, but a bead of sweat breaks the brow making the case for it today. A far-less invasive attempt to share asylum-seekers across Europe, via a quota system, has floundered. Just 700 of 160,000 have been transferred out of Greece and Italy. And the same thing which is stalling that scheme would likely stall this one – a lack of buy-in from eastern European states. It would require treaty change to get through, and Victor Orban’s Hungary is not about to let that happen.

Yesterday I spoke to Sergei Stanishev, president of the left-leaning PES, the second biggest party in the European Parliament. He was bullish about the need for “more Europe” in this crisis, but hazy on the detail of how to serve it up. With the bloc as divided as it is, frankly I do not see how the EU can draw more powers for itself.

And there is a significant risk to making the proposal for centralised asylum now. Britain would have an opt-out (“rock solid”, in the words of David Cameron). But if the system does come into force, it will mean the UK is stuck with the asylum-seekers who make it into the country, and cannot send them back to, say, France, if that is where they first registered. The whiff of an EU power-grab will send the Brexit camp into a feeding frenzy.

If the European Commission thinks that the prospect of depriving member states of the right to set their own asylum policies could never be enough to tip the balance of the British referendum, they are wrong. If it believes the urgency is such that reforms cannot wait to be proposed until after the referendum, that is brave, but perhaps a little foolish.

All too easily this could end up with the worst of both worlds: Britain pushed towards leaving the EU, and no common asylum policy to show for it once the dust has settled.

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