The issue of whether burden sharing in the EU should be voluntary and binding has become a vexed issue fuelling a passionate domestic political debate.
Last week, the European Parliament resumed its deliberations of a package of laws on immigration and asylum policy. During the debate, I stated that solidarity is the defining issue of this package and the ball now lies with governments in the Council of Ministers. I added that voluntary solidarity has been a joke because some member states do not want to help.
My comments were immediately seized by the Labour media that is more concerned with attacking the government than finding a lasting solution on immigration. Despite their propaganda ahead of last June's election, Labour do not even have one single MEP contributing on immigration in the Civil Liberties Committee where I spend most of my time.
Talk is cheap but if we had to wait for Labour to deliver on burden sharing, we had better get real.
Just two short years ago, any mention of burden sharing was, at best, ignored at EU level. At the time, solidarity was merely conceived as granting member states financial assistance to deal with the problem. Admittedly, Malta now benefits from a staggering €130 million in EU help on immigration. But the unruly migratory flow in the south is not a problem that one can solve merely by throwing money at it, helpful as that may be.
It is a problem that must also consider an equitable distribution of immigrants. Not that this, on its own, will solve the problem. But getting everyone to understand that they must carry part of the responsibility is a start. To date, many member states, especially in the North, continue to stiffly resist any such suggestion. And it is this resistance that we must overcome.
To be sure, the tide started turning last year. On three fronts.
Firstly, in the Council of Ministers the Maltese government succeeded in convincing the French Presidency that the EU Immigration and Asylum Pact had to include a reference to burden sharing if it were to be a pact at all. The fact that the pact referred to a "voluntary" solidarity was lambasted by the PL, which called on the government to refuse to sign it and later went as far as proposing an irrational veto-policy across the board.
Labour's criticism missed the point by a mile. For the option was never between a "voluntary" burden sharing or a "mandatory" one but between a voluntary commitment or nothing. In the event, it was sensible not to throw away a first commitment, even if voluntary, but to clinch it and build upon it.
Nevertheless, governments in Council remain, in their majority, averse to burden sharing, let alone turning it into a binding commitment. And we must understand that we need a qualified majority of them to come on board if we are to get anywhere.
Voluntary burden sharing is as good as member states make it.
France set the example by agreeing to resettle 100 refugees from Malta, following in the steps of the United States, which has been assiduously doing the same - on a voluntary basis - for the past years. But just six out of 27 countries agreed to sign up for Malta's pilot project. This does not say much about the readiness of member states to live up to last year's commitment on voluntary burden sharing. And even with the prospective entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which grants the Union a greater role in immigration and asylum, things will not fall into place automatically. We would still need to achieve a qualified majority in Council to wrench out a commitment on burden sharing.
This is where the second front comes into play by the name of the European Parliament, which has been our natural ally on burden sharing.
Ever since last year, I have been pursuing the establishment of a burden sharing mechanism at EU level through the European Parliament. My proposal was first taken up this time last year with an allocation of €5 million in this year's EU budget to encourage burden sharing. In April this year, the European Parliament went one step further by calling, for the first time, for the need to turn burden sharing into a binding commitment in my report on a Common Immigration Policy. And, in May this year, the European Parliament endorsed a proposal to establish a binding burden-sharing mechanism by 2011 as part of the review of the Dublin Regulation. This vote, which was famously messed-up by Labour's three MEPs, is important because on this law the Parliament has the same (co-decision) powers as the Council. And we can therefore exert a great deal of pressure on Council to accept some form of commitment on burden sharing.
Nevertheless, despite the Parliament's good intentions, the Dublin Regulation remains blocked in Council.
For good measure, the solidarity debate has also come up in the ongoing negotiations on the law that will establish a European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Whereas the European Parliament wants the mandate of the EASO to include a role in organising "mandatory solidarity", the Council insists that reference can only be made to a "voluntary" commitment. If the Swedish Presidency wants to strike a deal on the EASO before the end of this year, it needs to do more to find a compromise.
So why is the European Parliament insisting on mandatory burden sharing if even a voluntary commitment remains so tenuous? Simply because it is by upping the stakes that one can hope to make progress. If by insisting on a mandatory commitment we get a voluntary commitment that truly works, then I can live with that.
The third front is the European Commission, which has been gradually converting to the need to give a true meaning to solidarity in the area of immigration. The Commission is now finally starting to champion solidarity. This is in no small measure attributable to Vice President Jacques Barrot who has since instilled a true spirit of solidarity within the Commission. Hence, the Commission's pilot project to help Malta and its proposal to establish the first EU Resettlement Programme. What the Commission now needs to do is help us transmit this spirit onto the Council.
In synthesis, what is at play here is a veritable campaign to convince EU member states that the challenge of immigration is not just a problem for southern members but it is everyone's problem. In the final analysis, the problem is not so much whether solidarity is voluntary or compulsory but whether it is a solidarity that works. It is that solidarity that I will strive to achieve.
Ask your MEP on www.simonbusuttil.eu.
Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist member of the European Parliament.