EU Divided Over Migrant Quotas Proposal

EU quota could boost anti-immigration groups
Migrants are disembarked from the Italian navy ship Vega in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, southern Italy, May 4, 2015. Antonio Parrinello/REUTERS

A proposal which would require all 28 members states of the EU to accept a mandatory quota of migrants has divided opinion, with experts warning it could provide a boost for anti-immigration parties across Europe.

The proposal, to be announced by the European Commission on Wednesday, is in response to the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. The UN estimates that 60,000 people have already tried to cross the Mediterranean this year, and more than 1,800 migrants have died making the perilous crossing. As a result, European leaders are coming under increasing pressure to act.

Quotas would be determined using a range of factors, including a country's population, economic indicators and the number of asylum seekers previously accepted.

The European Commission's new migration policy will need to be agreed by all member states before it can be enforced, and will be discussed at a summit at the end of June.

However, the proposal has already sparked a fierce debate within Europe and is proving to be a divisive topic.

Some countries support a quota system, particularly Germany, which received over 200,000 applications for asylum last year, as well as countries which are struggling to cope with record numbers of migrants turning up on their shores, like Italy and Malta.

There is anger that some countries carry more of the burden than others. According to Eurostat, France and Italy had almost twice as many applicants for asylum as the UK, and Germany had more than twice as many as any other EU country. The UK had a total of 31,945 applicants last year - six times fewer than Germany. Germany expects 450,000 applications this year.

Yet the UK and other countries remain fiercely opposed to mandatory quotas. A UK government spokesman said: "The UK has a proud history of offering asylum to those who need it most, but we do not believe that a mandatory system of resettlement is the answer. We will oppose any EU Commission proposals to introduce a non-voluntary quota."

Leaders in Hungary, Slovakia and Estonia have also rejected the plans. Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban described the proposal as "a crazy idea".

According to Mats Persson, director of Open Europe, a thinktank based in London and Brussels, it is "very unlikely" that the proposal will be voted through by member states.

"The proposal may provide a hook for anti-immigration groups to boost their campaigns, but even before we consider whether this proposal would lead to an anti-immigration surge, this proposal is difficult to sell even to more mainstream political parties," he says.

"I have some sympathy with this proposal, but the big problem is that immigration policy is so intimately connected to the social contract between the government and the electorate, that democratically, this proposal is not sustainable," he concludes.

Anti-immigration parties have already made clear their opposition to the proposal. Steven Woolfe, an MEP and spokesperson for the UK Independence Party, said: "Ukip warned during the election campaign that the EU Commission was preparing to use the Med migration crisis to ambush member nation states with their plans for a common asylum policy.

"Far from negotiating on the free movement of people with the new British government, the Commission is determined to gain greater control of migration and asylum matters within the EU. Dispersing these migrants and asylum seekers across member states will only encourage more economic refugees from Africa to try to make the trip."

France's Front National party had a similar message, describing the policy as "outrageous" on its website, and accusing the European Union of encouraging mass immigration to Europe.

"Only the takeover of our national sovereignty, and stronger control of our borders and our laws, will put an end to mass immigration and its negative consequences for the whole of society," the website read.