There was a lot of outcry from European politicians following the recent Lampedusa refugee tragedy. But their concern only goes so far, as the EU interior ministers seek solutions that will cost them nothing.
At first, the spokesman for Germany's EU representative in Brussels did not understand the question: What decisions could be expected from the meeting of EU interior ministers to prevent future refugee disasters like last week in Lampedusa? Final decisions are not expected, the spokesman answered shortly before the meeting. The Italian government has put the issue on the agenda and the EU interior ministers were just planning to exchange their views.
At the end of a long day on Tuesday evening (08.10.2013), the ministers had shared their opinions, argued and appealed to each other's conscience. "We are asking for Europe to lend us a hand to save lives," said the Italian interior minister, Angelino Alfano. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, responsible for migration and asylum policy, added to that plea. She called on EU member states "to do their utmost…to share the responsibility."
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich emphasized, however, that now was the time to strengthen Frontex, the European border management agency, to prevent people from coming anywhere near Europe's borders. There were different opinions, but no decisions.
Waiting for the next disaster
Is it much ado about nothing, then? Just as in May 2005, and in August 2006, in August 2008, in March, July and in August 2009, in February, May, June and July 2011, in July 2012, and now in October 2013 - the list of refugee catastrophes in the Mediterranean Sea is long.
Nearly 20,000 people are said to have died in the past 10 years in a desperate attempt to reach Europe from Africa by sea, dying of thirst, drowning, or burned. And every time, the outcry was great in the capitals of the European Union. Every time the various interior ministers promised to do something so that this would not happen again. But tragedies have happened again and again.
"We need a culture of awareness," urged Manfred Weber, a domestic policy expert at the European Parliament. Weber is a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the same party as Interior Minister Friedrich. Both share the opinion that now is not the time to revamp the European refugee policy. Rather, member states should comply with the existing EU regulations. "It can't be that ships in distress in the Mediterranean aren't receiving any help, and that Italian laws even punish those providing assistance," he said.
Deportation 'against human dignity'
Under a law passed in 2002 by Silvio Berlusconi's government, ship captains and fishermen who help bring refugees onto land can be held responsible for human trafficking. The law is inspired by the mood in other EU countries: Above all, refugees cost money, and it's better not to give them a pleasant arrival. The consequence: Greek refugee camps that are in such a miserable condition that German courts have prohibited the deportation of refugees to Greece, saying it's against human dignity.
However, a centerpiece of Europe's refugee policy has now at least partly expired. The Dublin II Regulation, passed in 2003, states that refugees are only able to apply for asylum in the country where they first stepped on European soil. A refugee arriving in Greece must submit an application in Greece. But should he try to make his way to Germany, for example, he can be deported back to Greece - at least, that's the idea.
EU members not being neighborly
The Dublin II Regulation was adopted mainly due to pressure from Germany. During the Yugoslav Wars, Germany took on most of the incoming refugees from the region. All attempts to distribute the refugees more evenly across other EU countries failed due to the unwillingness of many of Germany's neighbors.
It's always the same. A few years ago when many Africans came over to the EU, in particular through Spain, Madrid called for a European solution. When immigrants began spilling over the Greek-Turkish border, Athens called for the EU to share the burden. But the majority of EU countries not currently facing the problem don't want to hear anything about increased financial contributions or an even distribution of refugees.
European politics are crisis politics. Only when the majority of EU governments aren't able to cope with a problem do they favor a European solution. For this reason, the Europe's refugee policy has remained piecemeal until today.
The European Union is able to tinker with the symptoms, such as when the Council of Ministers defines the minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, or when Frontex hunts down human smugglers, or when the European Commission negotiates with North African countries on joint border security and small quotas for legal immigration. A few thousand Tunisians, a few thousand Libyans, a few thousand Sudanese - allowed to come to the EU for a few years to work.
'You can stay - you can't'
But such agreements aren't enough to defuse the situation on the Mediterranean shores. "There will always be more people who want to come to Europe then these quotas allow," explained Bernd Leber, a migration researcher and EU consultant. "The issue of irregular migration will not be avoided in this manner."
To prevent disasters such as the one last week near Lampedusa, Europe would have to completely open its borders. But this would not be politically feasible in any EU country. "No country in the world has completely open borders," said Birgit Sippel, a Social Democrat Member of European Parliament. She believes that Europe, and especially Germany, is able to take in significantly more refugees than it currently does. "We need to talk to our people, those who are afraid [of these refugees]."
Manfred Weber believes, however, that Europe can't help but reject most of the people attempting to cross its borders. "We need a distinction between political refugees and those who come for economic reasons, even if that last decision is one that's easy to understand," he said. "We can't just decide to say to one person, 'You are free to come to Europe,' while to the other, 'No, you're not allowed.'"