DON’T ROCK THE BOAT: EU LEADERS DO AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE TO ADDRESS THE MIGRANT CRISIS

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS  Thursday, 23 April 2015

by Steve Peers

Yesterday the EU leaders, in the European Council, adopted a policy for addressing the recent crisis of large-scale migrant death tolls crossing the Mediterranean. It builds upon the recent 10-point plan adopted by ministers (discussed here), but builds upon it in some respects. There were also some interesting last-minute changes to the earlier draft of the text (all of which are shown in the annex below), indicating leaders’ real priorities.

Detailed comments

At first sight, the leaders’ statement shows more compassion than the 10-point plan, referring to the huge loss of life as a ‘tragedy’ and stating an immediate priority to ‘prevent more people from dying at sea’. To this end, there is a specific commitment to triple the funds for ‘search and rescue’ as regards existing EU operations. However, this is only ‘within the mandate of Frontex’ – and the head of the EU border agency has stated that this agency does not really have a search and rescue role.

It should be noted that since these operations are coordinated by Frontex, detailed rules of EU law will apply (discussed here) will apply. These rules do allow, in some cases, for returns of migrants directly from their rescue to non-EU countries – as long as those countries are safe. It is unlikely that in the current situation, Libya would qualify as safe.

The destruction of traffickers’ vessels ‘before they are used by traffickers’ seems to suggest some Minority Report style precognisance of the future use of the boats, considering that traffickers do not paint logos on the side of their boats like ferries or shipping companies. This is also qualified by a reference to compliance with international law. It may be questioned whether this action will legally be a foreign policy operation (as the leaders assume), given the approach to EU law taken in a recent CJEU opinion concerning the EU’s anti-pirates operation (discussed here).

As compared to the 10-point plan, there is a reference to Interception of communications, and a very brief reference to the root causes of the problem (conflict in countries of origin, as well as Libya). The EU leaders took out a reference to stopping migrants making it to the Mediterranean shores, but it’s obvious that this is the main intention of stepping up cooperation with sub-Saharan countries.

There’s an added stress on readmission treaties, including with countries of transit; this refers implicitly to EU readmission treaties with North African states (not Libya) currently under negotiation. There are also two added references to the right to asylum and EU asylum law, confirming that the EU leaders do not intend to simply return migrants without considering their claims. Some press reports had erroneously suggested an intention to return many thousands of migrants without considering claims, but if migrants make it to EU waters or land, it would be illegal to return them without examining their claims under EU law. Migrants can be returned to countries of origin or transit if their asylum claims are unfounded, as long as those countries are safe. Again, returning migrants to Libya would, under current circumstances, breach EU and human rights law as long as that country does not appear safe.

As compared to the 10-point plan, it appears that the intention is not to fingerprint all migrants, but only those applying for asylum; this simply re-iterates long-standing EU law. More generally, the plan says little about safe passage, removing the original (and puny) target number of 5,000 resettlement places, and not referring to other forms of safe passage instead. (While it would be difficult to issue humanitarian visas in Libya, it would be possible to offer this option – discussed further here – in other States). Equally, there is little practical solidarity with frontline states; other Member States offer cash and help with processing and return, but weakened any significant commitment to relocate people from those frontline States.

There is an immediate commitment to issue a ‘roadmap’ next week, pre-empting the Commission’s agenda-setting role (its strategy paper is due in May). However, the role of the European Parliament may still prove significant, since it must approve any funding decisions or changes in legislation.

Conclusions

Overall, the new commitment to search and rescue is welcome, although it is qualified in light of Frontex’s limited powers.  The desire to address root causes is good but seems half-hearted, and this is easier said than done. A more ambitious strategy regarding the processing of asylum claims in non-EU transit states is probably necessary in the medium term, but neither the EU leaders nor asylum NGOs want to swallow this bitter pill for the time being. The destruction of traffickers’ boats is subject to legal and practical constraints, and will be almost literally a drop in the ocean. The summit result is frankly pathetic as regards safe passage of migrants, ensuring that they avoid the risk of the crossing altogether, and it is marginal as regards assistance to frontline Member States.

On the whole, it seems that the leaders want to do as little as possible to change the current approach to dealing with the crisis. Similar to their method of dealing with the euro crisis, this looks like a short-term patch-up that offers less than first appears, which will probably have to be revisited soon.

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