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The Aquarius incident unsettles Europe. Avramopoulos (EU Commission), “migration is a European issue”

Controversies on the rejected rescue ship carrying 629 people flare up. The Italian government, accused of "cynicism", gave a harsh reply to France and Spain. Opposing factions in the European Parliament and mutual accusations: "You cannot put human lives at risk"; "you have not lifted a finger to welcome migrants.” Meanwhile, the Commission looks ahead and urges Member States to review Dublin regulations and allocate 35 billion-euro over a seven-year period to border management, repatriations and legal migrants

Strasburgo, 12 giugno: il commissario Dimitris Avramopoulos assediato dai giornalisti

(from Strasbourg) No unanimous praise or expressions of admiration were conveyed to Italy when it welcomed migrants crossing the Mediterrean sea. But when the new government refused to let the ‘Aquarius’ ship carrying 629 migrants dock at its ports, contradictions flared up across Europe. It should be said that the burden of responsibility is not on “Brussels” per se, but rather on the inaction of Member State governments – all of them, none excluded – that in the past years refused to grant the EU the required amount of sovereignty and funds that would have enabled a common response to the migration phenomenon. Egoism and nationalisms equally underlie the need for the reform of Dublin regulations, identifying the responsibility of a safe haven – albeit temporary – to people fleeing from war, hunger and  famine.

European answer. Thus the plenary of the EU Assembly in Strasbourg is turning into a trial against the Conte-Salvini Government, in an open-field battle involving the three Community institutions (Parliament, Commission and Council), as well as the representative of EU 28 Member Countries. The decision to refuse entry to Aquarius, among its many flaws, has the merit of having given new impetus to the migrant question at European level. In this respect, Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos remarked:

“No one believes this is an Italian responsibility, or a Maltese or a Spanish one. This is also a European issue, requiring a European response.”

But European governments stand on opposite fronts. Madrid has extended a helping hand to Rome offering to take in the migrant ship, but then added that Italy “broke international rules” for not having conducted rescue operations, and thus put people’s lives at risk. Rome was blasted also by Paris, notably by President Emmanuel Macron, who criticised what he called Italy’s “cynicism and irresponsibility.” The Italian Premier promptly replied: “Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration.” Moreover, the newly formed government is seeking allies in Countries such as Hungary and Austria, which until now have refused to take in refugees from Italy.

Standstill on Dublin. Heated debates flared up also in the European Parliament. Disagreements between Italian MEPs see them on opposite fronts compared to a few weeks ago: the PD Party (Democratic Left) voices strong criticism, while the League and the Five-Star Movement passionately defend the newly-formed government. MEPs’ expressions of appreciation for Italy, that has done more than any other EU Country to accept asylum-seekers, are subdued by criticisms linked to the Aquarius incident.

In the mean time, the next European Council tabled for June 28-29 (with heads of Government and State) will most likely be stalled on asylum reform and migration.

The head of the Liberal Group Guy Verhofstadt, threatens to bring the European Council to the High Court of Justice if “it continues to fail to act” on the revision of the Dublin III-regulation.

Proposal to triple funding. Commissioner Avramopoulos kept his nerves steady along with Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, both displaying great mediation skills. The former presented to MEPs the Commission proposals for the multiannual financial framework in the area of border management and migration. “We propose to triple funding” to almost €35 billion for 2021-2027, compared to €13 billion in the previous period, he said, divided in two funds: an Asylum and Migration Fund and an Integrated Border Management Fund. A large part of the funds, over €21 billion, would be allocated to border management while approximately 10 billion to asylum and reception. “Better managing our external borders will remain key priorities for the Union, the Member States and our citizens in the years to come. These bigger challenges also require bigger resources”, Avramopoulos said. Answering questions from journalists on the Aquarius incident, he said:

“It reminds us that migration is not a theoretical matter. It’s a concrete issue that involves human beings.”

“Many efforts have been made in the last three years to build a European migration policy”, Avramopoulos pointed out, leading to a decrease in the number of arrivals (-70% compared to last year). The Commissioner repeatedly thanked Italy for its migrant reception policy. “However – he added – the Acquarius incident also tells us that the work is far from finished. A common approach is needed” on migration, reception, external border management. Avramopoulos summarised his proposal: “The reinforced funding will be pivotal in ensuring that we can implement these political priorities: further secure our external borders, continue to grant protection to those who need it, better support legal migration and integration efforts, counter irregular migration, and effectively and swiftly return those who have no right to stay in the EU.”

Two budget chapters. Thus two chapters of the EU budget will be devoted to migration funds within the financial framework for the period 2021-2027, the first being EU external border protection.

The Commission proposes to allocate €21.3 billion to border management overall and create a new Integrated Border Management Fund (IBMF).

The second chapter specifically relates to migration. To this regard the Commission proposes to increase funding for migration by 51% to reach €10.4 billion under the renewed Asylum and Migration Fund (AMF). “The Fund will support Member States’ efforts in three key areas: asylum, legal migration and integration, and countering irregular migration and returns.” These are the proposals of the Commission for the Multiannual Financial Framework, supported by a majority of MEPs. But Member States have the final word on the budget. The game is not over yet.

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