Mediterranean Migrants and the Dublin conundrum

August 2, 2017
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The Mediterranean remains the ‘soft underbelly’ of the EU.  After the closure of the Balkan route the so-called Central Mediterranean route has come under renewed pressure.  Irregular crossings from Libya to Italy are on the rise again.

The summer months traditionally bring an increase, leading to short periods of more than 10,000 refugees and migrants arriving in Italy over a few days.  However, if one compares the cumulative flow from last year to the first 6 months of 2017 one finds only a moderate increase, of about 10 %.  This would lead to an expected total of about 200 thousand for all of 2017.  This number might not appear unbearable for a country of 60 million, which is part of the G-7 group of major industrialised countries.  However, the numbers add up over time and Italy represents now the main entry point for illegal border crossings into the EU.

Moreover, the real problem is not asylum, but defense of the external Schengen border, the fact that so many people cross illegally into Italy, not all of which actually ask for asylum and among those who do, most come from countries with very high rejection rates.

The deeper general problem is that it is just not possible to build fences on water. Once people are on a boat, they either make it to a port and are then already on EU soil, entitling them to submit a request for asylum. Or, as happens in reality in most cases, they must be rescued because the boats used are often not seaworthy and there is a legal and moral obligation to rescue people whose life is in danger at sea. The European Union and its member states cannot evade this responsibility. Under current circumstances, however, the burden of this obligation is not evenly shared: almost everyone rescued in the Mediterranean ends up in Italy, which usually provides the nearest port.

This leads to another problem: in principle Europe could help Italy policy the Mediterranean.  But why should Italy welcome a European flotilla transporting ever more people to Italian ports, leaving that country to bear the administrative, fiscal and societal burden of dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom are unlikely to be later recognised as deserving asylum or protection? Today the problem concerns mainly Italy, but tomorrow it might be Spain, France or, again, Greece. This is thus not an Italian problem, but rather caused by the Dublin system in general.

In short, it is not possible to make much progress on a European Coast Guard unless the Dublin system of assigning the responsibility for refugees to the border state is changed.

There is no need to completely overturn Dublin since experience shows that the problems it creates on the land border can in principle be dealt with. But the problems on the sea border remain acute. This means that Europe more urgently needs a common Coast Guard, rather than a generalised Border Guard. A Coast Guard operates mostly outside the territorial waters and thus represents much less of an infringement of national sovereignty. But the establishment of a European Coast Guard requires one important change to the Dublin system: anyone picked up at sea and saved by a European institution would then become the responsibility of the entire EU.

In concrete terms, what is needed is a package consisting of two elements, both of which are essential:

  1. A truly federal European Coast Guard.
  2. A fair distribution system for those rescued by this European Border Guard.

The European Coast Guard should not be an intergovernmental agency relying on contributions from member states, but rather a separate institution equipped with a unified command and its own assets (ships and possibly drones).

The difference in effectiveness between a unified federal institution and an intergovernmental agency can be illustrated by looking at the difference in effectiveness of the European Banking Authority (EBA) and the Single Supervisory Mechanism at the European Central Bank. The EBA proved to be largely toothless because it was dominated by the national supervisory agencies of its member states, which had no interest in the EBA becoming strong enough to deal with the problems hidden in national banking systems. The euro area banking system was really cleaned up only when the task of supervision was assigned to a unified, federal institution. The same needs to happen for the Coast Guard function in the Mediterranean.

This ECG would then become responsible not only for search and rescue operations, but also for organising and supporting the fight against smuggling on and near the shores of the Northern African states. It would thus also represent the EU externally on the water.

The second element of the package is in principle simple: those rescued by the European Costal Guard should be assigned to member states according to a key which takes into account population size and economic factors.

The financial cost resulting from accepting refugees picked up by a common operation should logically also be borne by the common budget. One way to do this would be that each member state accepting an applicant resulting from a common search and rescue operation would be provided directly from the EU budget a fixed lump sum per head which is high enough to defray the likely actual costs. A sum between €6,000 and €10,000 per applicant would result in a total expenditure for the EU budget of between €1.5 and €2.5 billion per annum if the number of refugees picked up at sea were to remain at 250,000. If the recognition rates remain as low as they are at present (around 25% for the central Mediterranean route), the cost for the EU budget would be much lower. The cost for the EU budget would not, of course, represent an additional burden, but merely a reimbursement to member states for expenditure they have to undertake implementing common rules.

Now would be the time to push for such a package because Germany has learned that a European solutions protects also its borders and with a new president, France should also be sympathetic.  It may be challenging to achieve consensus among the Schengen states in view of the opposition expressed by the new member states in particular against any notion that they could be ‘forced’ to accept refugees.

But the Treaty also contains the possibility for a group of Member States to create new mechanisms among themselves.  Italy has in general be opposed to a Europe of variable geometry, but at this juncture this might be the only way to proceed.