This week’s European Council will have a decisive bearing on the future of Europe. If the Member States fail to reach agreement on a way to stop and regulate the influx of migrants and asylum seekers, the European project itself may be in for a fatal blow.
The EU and its Member States were too slow in acknowledging this phenomenon and their only response has been to go along with it and engage in a damage limitation exercise at our borders.
By 2050, the population of Africa will double to more than 2.5 billion. If we do not take action now, the hundreds of thousands of immigrants will turn into millions, with devastating consequences for Europe.
The root causes of immigration are the instability and insecurity besetting large parts of Africa and the Middle East, along with terrorism, poverty, famine and climate change. Between 2014 and 2017 alone, at least 13,000 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean, and tens of thousands perished in the Sahara.
Citizens in Malta, as in Italy or elsewhere, are no longer prepared to accept a Europe sitting on its laurels, incapable of addressing the fundamental causes of this tragedy. They want a Union that shows solidarity towards those fleeing persecution and war but is resolute in turning away those who do not have the right to enter or remain in Europe.
The summit is the last chance to ensure that the expectations of 500 million Europeans are not disappointed.
Courage is called for, and a strategy for the short, medium and long term based on two pillars. On the one hand, we need to immediately halt the constant stream of boats leaving transit countries and the coast of Africa, ensuring that only people genuinely entitled to asylum arrive in Europe, and do so safely. On the other, we need to allocate asylum seekers among the Member States on the basis of an automatic, mandatory mechanism.
The very first step must be to stop the boats from leaving and prevent the smugglers from putting the lives of tens of thousands of people at risk. People who genuinely need asylum cannot be left to the mercy of unscrupulous traffickers. If we stop the boats from leaving, we will also deprive the individuals who trade in the lives of men, women and children of their ill-gotten gains.
Taking its cue from the agreement concluded with Turkey, which led to the Balkan route being shut down, the EU must invest at least €6 billion in shutting down the Mediterranean routes.
Taking its cue from the cooperation arrangements it has developed with Niger, the EU must work more closely with the transit countries, such as Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya itself.
Before 2016, 150,000 migrants passed through Niger every year. So far this year, the figure is just 5,000. What is more, 1,500 asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya and housed temporarily in Niger.
If we fail to agree on a credible strategy…the philosophy of every country for itself will prevail
I am planning to travel to Niamey and Agadez in mid-July with the aim of stepping up our cooperation with Niger. I will also be leading an economic diplomacy mission with European entrepreneurs. Of the 650,000 asylum applications submitted in 2017, 416,000 were lodged in only three countries: Germany, Italy and France. This glaring injustice is linked to the way the Dublin Regulation works. Malta knows this only too well, as it has itself been under pressure in the past.
We need to overhaul the regulation. We need a fairer and more effective European asylum system. In November 2017, the European Parliament adopted a proposal on the fair distribution of asylum seekers. I have written to the EU Heads of State and Government urging them to use that proposal as the basis for the overhaul of the EU system.
If we are to convince the more reluctant Member States to accept this redistribution plan, we must reassure them that the Union is capable of policing its external borders and stopping the departures from leaving North Africa.
Then, the only people arriving in Europe would be those entitled to protection under relocation projects run by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These persons would be transported safely and allocated fairly among the Member States, as they already are from the camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
If we fail to agree on a credible European strategy based on these two pillars, the philosophy of every country for itself will prevail, culminating in the renationalisation of migration policies, the closure of national borders and the collapse of the Schengen system.
At the same time, the Union must coordinate the efforts to stabilise the situation in Libya, with the aim of making it a State with which it can work in partnership.
A genuinely effective strategy must also address the root causes of the exodus of migrants towards Europe. We are calling for the next EU budget to include funds for a Marshall Plan for Africa. We need at least €40 billion, in order to attract €500 billion in investment over the next decade. The aim must be to offer young Africans prospects and hope and so persuade them to stay in their home countries. This investment, combined with robust economic diplomacy and quotas for legal immigration, can clear the way for the conclusion of readmission agreements with countries of origin.
The immigration crisis may spell the end of the European dream. We cannot, and must not, simply stand by and let this happen. We must show the courage, determination and ambition needed to devise new approaches together.
The European Parliament is playing its part, by proposing a properly thought-out, credible strategy. I appeal to the Heads of State and Government to put national self-interest aside and work together to prevent the collapse of our Union.
Antonio Tajani is president of the European Parliament.