…As Macron scolds Italy over Aquarius ship with stranded migrants***
The EU will establish a 10,000-strong standing corp of guards to patrol its land and sea borders under plans that will see the bloc triple its spending to €5bn (£4.4bn) a year on targeting illegal migration into the bloc, it has announced.
The building of new border infrastructure including scanners, automated number plate recognition systems, and mobile laboratories for sample analysis, will also be prioritised, along with the establishment of teams of sniffer dogs.
Announcing its €34.9bn spending plan for 2021 to 2027, the European commission insisted, however, that it would not fund the installation of fences on the EU’s borders.
Hungary’s right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, last year called on the EU to co-finance fences along its shared borders with Serbia and Croatia. A commission statement said its funding was “aimed at ensuring proper control of borders, not closing them. The commission has never financed fences and will not do so under the new EU budget either.”
Frans Timmermans, the commission’s first vice-president, said: “Based on past experience and the knowledge that migration will remain a challenge in the future, we are proposing an unprecedented increase in funding. Strengthening our common EU borders, in particular with our European Border and Coast Guard, will continue to be a big priority.”
While the earmarking of extra funding is widely approved by the EU’s member states, they remain deeply fractured over their migration and asylum policies after two years of disputes.
The commission is taking Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the European court of justice over their failure to respect a mandatory quota system that was designed to relocate about 120,000 largely Syrian refugees. Hungary has not relocated any refugees since the quotas were introduced while Poland has not done so since 2016. The Czech Republic has not relocated anyone since August.
Another faultline is the Dublin mechanism under which the member state first receiving a refugee must take responsibility for them.
It has been proposed that this rule could be time-limited, so that refugees finding a home over a number of years in one country could not then be sent to another, but the EU cannot agree on the length of the time limit.
A failure to reach a consensus on the reform of the system has led to Austria, Belgian and Denmark proposing radical plans for shutting the borders and establishing camps in non-EU states.
Herbert Kickl, Austria’s interior minister and a member of the far-right Freedom party, recently suggested the EU requires a “small Copernican revolution” on migration. Austria is taking over the rolling presidency of the European council in July.
The parties in the new Italian government, the far-right League and the populist Five Star Movement, are exploiting the potency of the issue. On Monday, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, declared victory after a standoff over the fate of 629 people on a humanitarian rescue boat.
Italy had refused to allow the MS Aquarius to dock at the weekend. The Spanish government stepped in to allow the boat to disembark on their territory, although the offer required an additional two days at sea for those on board, including the 100 children.
During a press conference in Strasbourg to announce the new spending, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, said: “This is only one vessel and incident. Another 937 people have been saved by the Italian coastguard and are being transported to Catania as we speak.”
The commission wants its proposed budget to be agreed by member states and MEPs before the next European parliament elections in May 2019, two months after the UK leaves the EU.
In the meantime, French President Emmanuel Macron has accused the Italian government of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for refusing to let a stranded rescue ship packed with migrants dock in Italy.
A charity looking after the 629 migrants on the Aquarius, stranded off Malta, says two Italian ships will help take them to Spain’s port of Valencia.
Spain is some three days’ sailing away.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hit back angrily at France, calling its stance on migrants “hypocritical”.
He criticised “countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration”.
In the past five years Italy has taken in more than 640,000 mainly African migrants and says its EU partners must ease the burden.
Most migrants who survive the perilous voyages from North Africa end up in overcrowded Italian camps. Among them are refugees fleeing war and persecution, who have a right to asylum. The Aquarius migrants, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, were picked up off Libya’s coast at the weekend.
They were found in inflatable boats and are now being looked after by Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Franco-German charity SOS Méditerranée aboard the Aquarius.
Mr Macron’s spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the French president recalled that “in cases of distress, those with the nearest coastline have a responsibility to respond”.
“There is a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government’s behaviour,” he quoted President Macron as saying.
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The plan is for the Aquarius to be joined by an Italian coastguard ship and a warship, then for all three to head for Valencia.
The coastguard ship Dattilo and the warship are expected to take migrants on board from the Aquarius in the coming hours. There are medics and UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) workers on the Dattilo.
SOS Méditerranée tweeted photos of fresh supplies arriving on board on Tuesday.
Guardian UK with additional report from BBC