13 May 2015

The European Commission has just unveiled its new ‘European migration agenda’, a set of measures to deal with the on-going refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Over the past few days, newspaper headlines have mostly focused on one aspect: the Commission’s plan for a system of binding quotas for the distribution of refugees among EU member states.

The timeline

In its new refugee plan, the European Commission envisages the following timeline:

End of May – Proposal for emergency relocation of refugees that are already on EU territory. This will be done under Article 78(3) of the Lisbon Treaty. The Commission has already worked out what share of refugees each EU country would have to take, based on criteria such as population, GDP and unemployment rate. EU member states will have to approve the Commission’s proposal by qualified majority, while the European Parliament will only have to be consulted. The UK, Ireland and Denmark have an opt-out.

End of May – Recommendation for an EU-wide resettlement scheme for 20,000 refugees. There’s an important difference between relocation and resettlement. The former refers to people that have already reached European shores. The latter is about safely transferring to the EU people from refugee camps based in third countries. Recommendations are not legally binding, so the Commission will for now essentially be urging member states to set up a one-off resettlement scheme – although the document published today does mention the possibility of tabling a legislative proposal to make it mandatory at a later stage. The UK, Ireland and Denmark have an opt-out from such a scheme.

By the end of 2015 – Proposal for an automatic emergency relocation mechanism that would be triggered every time one or more EU member states face a “mass influx” of refugees. Again, the UK, Ireland and Denmark have an opt-out.

2016 – Evaluation and potential review of the EU’s Dublin Regulation, to which the UK signed up and under which EU countries can return asylum seekers to the member state where they first entered EU territory. If the Commission were to propose amending the Dublin Regulation, the UK would be allowed to opt out of the revamped proposal but would then risk being locked out of the whole Dublin system – of which it is keen on being part. In practice, this would mean that the UK would no longer be allowed to return asylum seekers to other EU member states.

A proposal that strikes at the heart of national sovereignty

At the moment, the distribution of asylum seekers among EU member states is uneven. The graph below speaks for itself.

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While one can make the case that this needs to become fairer, it is unlikely that the Commission’s proposal for binding and permanent quotas will find the necessary support. Each one of the EU’s 28 member states simply has a different idea of what ‘a fair number of refugees’ means, and the decision over how many asylum seekers to accept goes to the heart of national democracy.

This explains why the UK is far from alone in criticising the idea of binding quotas – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and others are clearly not enthusiastic about it.

What consequences for Cameron’s renegotiation?

David Cameron’s newly-elected majority Conservative government didn’t have to wait long for its first European test. The UK has already made it clear that it will reject any mandatory quota system. First, such a system implies a huge transfer of powers from national capitals to Brussels. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the UK just doesn’t think that EU-wide quotas are the right way for Europe to deal with the refugee flow (see Home Secretary Theresa May’s article in The Times today).

With a potentially game-changing renegotiation on the horizon, one could argue that the UK could have struck a less categorical tone and may have generated goodwill among its European partners by taking part in the resettlement scheme – which would have meant taking 2,309 more refugees in a one-off move. Or it could have offered to take the same number of refugees but without going the EU route. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs, relations between the new UK government and its EU partners – Germany in particular – have started off on a rather sour note.