BRUSSELS — Senior European Union officials on Wednesday appealed to member countries to set aside their deep differences over migration and press ahead with a long-delayed overhaul of the 27-nation bloc’s asylum system as tensions simmer between France and Italy.
In recent weeks, several hundred people hoping to enter Europe have been stranded at sea aboard aid ships while countries bicker over whether and where they should be allowed to disembark. EU interior ministers are holding emergency talks on Friday in an effort to find a permanent solution.
A diplomatic row erupted earlier this month when Italy forced France’s hand to accept a humanitarian rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, with 234 migrants aboard. The rightwing government in Rome had refused to grant it access to a port for weeks.
France retaliated by suspending its participation in an EU solidarity pact to accept 3,000 people who had arrived this year in Italy and sent officers to reinforce its southern border crossings and prevent migrants from entering.
Two years ago, the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, made public the latest of several plans to reform the asylum system, a scheme that it insists would address the problems.
Failing to move ahead with this detailed reform plan, Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas told EU lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, it’s “like having a parachute but choosing to jump out of the plane without it.”
According to the EU’s coastguard agency Frontex, around 275,000 attempts to enter Europe without authorization were made by people in the first 10 months of this year, a six-year record. Most are coming overland through the Balkans, but many cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats.
Around 79,140 attempts to enter were made through the central Mediterranean Sea. Most were from Bangladesh, Tunisia and Egypt and are unlikely to be allowed to stay because they are not fleeing conflict or persecution.
The number of arrivals dwarf those experienced in countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and should be manageable in a relatively wealthy bloc that is home to 450 million citizens, yet the thousands arriving by boat have sparked one of the EU’s biggest political crises.
For years, member countries have argued over who should take responsibility for those arriving and whether partner countries should be obliged to help. Unable to agree, they and the commission have sought to outsource the problem by clinching deals with north African countries like troubled Libya that people transit or leave to get to Europe.
EU countries and the commission have also rejected any attempts to set up a concerted search and rescue mission to deal with the problem, arguing that such a scheme would only entice more people to come. They’ve even taken legal action against aid groups trying to save lives.
“Without any proof, certain governments accuse these NGOs of complicity with human traffickers. On the contrary, it is the Union and its member states that finance a predatorial and deadly system,” said the joint president of the Greens political group in the EU parliament, Philippe Lamberts.
“By giving the keys to our migration and asylum policy to countries like Libya, we are making ourselves complicit in violence, torture, rape and ransom. Libya is a failed state. And it’s so-called coastguard are armed gangs in uniforms paid for by the European Union,” he said.
But under a commission “action plan” prepared for Friday’s emergency talks, the ministers will look at ways to boost the ability of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt “to develop jointly targeted actions to prevent irregular departures” and tighten their borders.
The EU’s top migration official, Ylva Johansson, said the challenges for Europe are immense.
“Time is running. We have to start the real negotiations now,” she said. “Migration is not a threat. Migration is something we need. But we need to manage migration, and we need to welcome people (by) legal ways. But we need to prevent irregular arrivals and the risk of people’s lives.”