BRUSSELS — A top European Union leader conceded in unusually candid comments Wednesday that the EU response to the deadly Mediterranean migrant crisis was too little, too late, and said offers to do more in the immediate future are inadequate.
Beyond the willingness to come up with instant humanitarian aid to deal with the tragedies of hundreds of dead at sea, the EU has continued to turn a cold shoulder to most of the thousands that attempt to make the Mediterranean crossing to build a better life in Europe.
To force a change, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Parliament called for the imposition of a mandatory quota system for the 28 EU nations to take care of the refugees and not leave it to frontline countries like Italy, Greece and Malta, or those like Germany and Sweden that are sheltering a disproportionate amount of asylum seekers.
"We need to share solidarity," Juncker told EU lawmakers, and also give more consideration to legal immigration. "We have to open the doors to make sure they don't come in through the windows."
A parliament resolution approved by a 449-130 margin, with 93 abstentions, called for a quota plan. It also urged EU nations to provide more places for refugee resettlement and to issue more humanitarian visas to asylum seekers before they depart, allowing them to travel to Europe by traditional means instead of using the dangerous sea route.
EU nations have proved reluctant to share the burden of lodging asylum seekers — some do not even have the reception lodgings required for them under EU law— but Juncker and the parliament are trying to find ways to bind countries to their commitments. The quota plan is likely to be controversial, as it could see a maximum limit for refugees set for each member state. When that limit is reached, the migrants would have to be shared among other EU partners.
Some 280,000 illegal border crossings were detected in Europe last year, a new record. More than 170,000 came through the Mediterranean, mostly Syrians and Eritreans leaving via strife-torn Libya to find better lives in the rich EU. Around 1,700 are feared to have died in the last few weeks, yet the high-season for sea migration does not start till June.
But in times of increasing anti-foreigner sentiment, economic crisis and inward-looking politics in several EU nations, Juncker did not have a popular message.
Highlighting the problems, a key British legislator with immigrant roots immediately came out and said the doors could not be flung wide open. Syad Kamall said that "when I see poverty and tragedies like this, my heart wishes we were able to offer that opportunity to everyone. But my head tells me we cannot."
Kamall is from Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling Conservative Party, which is in the closing stages of a tight campaign ahead of the May 7 British elections where immigration is a major theme.
"Seeking new forms of legal migration will not solve this problem," said Kamall.
Juncker promised that he would be coming up with a plan for relocation of refugees across the whole EU on May 13.
The immediate concern, though, is how to deal with the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean in rickety ships during doomed missions set up by unscrupulous traffickers who leave them to drown after the refugees have set off.
Juncker said that pledges made at an emergency summit last Thursday to boost a European border operation dealing with the unprecedented wave of migrants "were inferior to the ambitions that we should have."
He also told the lawmakers that the decision to phase out Italy's Mare Nostrum operation late last year was wrong.
"It was a grave mistake," Juncker said during a tense debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "It cost human lives."
The Italian emergency operation was expensive and politically unpopular in Italy even though it helped pluck tens of thousands from the Mediterranean in 2013-2014.
At the EU summit, leaders pledged to double the number of ships and aircraft in the Triton border operation in the Mediterranean, which followed Mare Nostrum, and to triple its budget to 9 million euros a month.
But some of the assets for the expanded operation, which include border and migration experts, will not be available for several months, and many are only being offered for a month or two.
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