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Opinion

Opinion: EU offers no great change in refugee policy

EU leaders made a first step in emergency summit on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. But more needs to come because the real problem remains unsolved, says Bernd Riegert.

A memorial on Malta. A minute's silence among government leaders at the emergency meeting in Brussels - thoughts for the hundreds of refugees who drowned off the coast of Libya in the past few days. Unlike many African states, the EU is at least trying to face its responsibility a little.

That means the border control agency Frontex will have its budget tripled in order to better protect the borders of Italy and Malta and to look more actively for shipwrecks. That is the only concrete decision that was made at the surprisingly long meeting in Brussels. It wasn't a clear turning point in the European refugee policy, despite dramatic events on the Mediterranean.

EU tries to save face

The interests of the EU member states are too diverse. It was only public pressure that forced the leaders to boost the budget for the Triton mission. You don't want to appear inhumane, after all. Chancellor Angela Merkel brought up the basic values of the EU and human rights, which stood on the line. Germany, Belgium, Britain and others will send additional ships and personnel to at least prevent the worst crises.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert

DW's Bernd Riegert

But Triton's actual tasks were not expressly broadened. The question remains whether Frontex, in cooperation with the Italian navy, really will be able to find all the desperate refugees on broken ships. The main concern is not just the poor people who get into the boats despite the dangers, but also saving face. The EU now wants to pay 9 million euros ($9.7 million) to Triton every month.

That is more or less the same cost as the now defunct Italian mission "Mare Nostrum." Basically they are recreating the old status quo and indirectly admitting that ending Mare Nostrum was a mistake. But the truth is also that Italy did not end Mare Nostrum last fall because of the costs, but because the populist right-wing Interior Minister Angelino Alfano no longer wanted to take in the refugees being rescued.

Main problem unsolved

The key problem remains unsolved, even after the emergency meeting in Brussels. What to do with the refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants? There are more thoughts of reforming the Dublin regulation that forces the country where the refugee arrives to deal with them - as there have been for some time. But not much will happen. British Prime Minister David Cameron has made the same line clear that other states share: he is prepared to rescue the refugees, but not to take a single one of them in - instead, he wants to offload them directly in Italy.

Now the EU wants to check whether the human traffickers' boats can be identified before they pick up the refugees and then be destroyed by airstrikes. That would seem to be a dead end, for a number of legal and practical reasons. Putting an EU military presence in Libya is out of the question.

Whether and how legal paths can be opened to the EU, in order to shut down the business models for the human trafficking organizations, was not discussed by the government leaders. It will likely to be discussed at a number of summits for years to come. The next emergency summit is already being planned - this time on Malta with the African and Middle Eastern origin and transit countries. We must work together with those countries, and make sure they do not escape their responsibility.

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