Spring has arrived in Europe, bringing pale sunshine, calm seas, thousands of refugees and the prospect of another war.
This is the busiest time of the year for people smugglers. The Mediterranean is relatively calm, making it the perfect moment to cram thousands of desperate and poor people into boats in Libyan ports, in the hope that they will reach Europe and claim asylum there.
The problem has brought several flash points to the fore in the European Union. One is whether the European Commission has the right to tell member countries to take in more asylum seekers; the other is whether Europe will launch military action to fight people smugglers at their source.
The issues put Britain and Germany, yet again, at opposite ends of the debate over what should be done.
The European Union is for now taking a two-pronged strategy. It hopes to stop asylum seekers from getting to Europe by destroying the boats traffickers use to bring them in. But if they do reach Europe, the idea is to spread the arrivals more evenly across the continent.
Britain has been one of the key supporters of military action.
On Wednesday, the European Commission will unveil plans for mandatory national quotas to relocate the migrants who do manage to reach Europe. The draft suggests migrants would be distributed across the European Union based on the size of their economy, population, unemployment rate and the number of asylum seekers they already have.
The quota idea is supported by Germany, which currently takes in by far the largest number of asylum seekers. Data from Eurostat shows that there were over 200,000 pending asylum applications in Germany at the end of 2014. In Italy, the United Kingdom, France by contrast, the number was fewer than 50,000.
Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said he did not expect all members states to agree to the quotas straight away but added that, at present, only five European countries – including Germany – take three quarters of all refugees reaching the E.U.'s shores.
But for the newly elected British government, which came to power on an anti-immigrant, euro-skeptic ticket and has promised a referendum on the country's E.U. membership, this issue is its first chance to flex its muscles to convince its domestic electorate that it is winning a battle against further European integration.
It has already rejected the idea of a quota. The U.K. Home Office spokesman said in a statement that “the U.K. 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 E.U. Commission proposals to introduce a non-voluntary quota.”
But on the second European Commission idea, that the E.U. launch military action against the people smugglers operating out of Libya, Britain is taking a leading role while Germany is more reluctant to act. At an emergency meeting to discuss the issue in April, after more than 800 people died when another boat carrying migrants capsized, European Union leaders agreed to use force against the people traffickers operating out of Libya.
Britain has been one of the key supporters of military action. It has already sent naval ship the HMS Bulwark and three navy helicopters to the Mediterranean for search and rescue missions. These could be used in more aggressive action.
Britain is also taking a key role in drafting a U.N. security council resolution to authorize the mission.
On Monday, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini formally asked the United Nations to authorize E.U. military action. In her speech to the U.N. Security Council she said the issue was “a security crisis, since smuggling networks are linked to and in some cases finance terrorist activities, which contributes to instability in a region that is already unstable.”
At the April meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had supported the idea of direct action against smugglers saying "we agreed that we need to tackle the traffickers' pernicious business model at its roots."
But German officials are worried about the legality and ethics of sinking boats. International law will not allow naval ships to capture or destroy boats filled with refugees.
There are also reservations about taking action without Libya’s explicit consent, which is difficult as there is no clear government in the country.
It will also be hard to persuade all members of the United Nations that Europe has the right to attack Libya. Several countries, including Russia, blame NATO and the E.U. for the fact that Libya descended into chaos after NATO forces toppled its president Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. At the time, NATO did not officially declare war on Mr. Gaddafi’s regime. Instead, it said it was enforcing a no-fly zone over the country, effectively stopping the Libyan military from crushing an insurgency in its own country.
It is clear something must be done. On April 18 nearly 1,000 people died when their boat capsized sailing from Libya to Italy. There have been several hundred other deaths, and near misses. The UN refugee agency estimates some 1,800 people have died this year alone. Italy is overwhelmed by processing the thousands who do manage to arrive.
Gil Ariaz-Fernandez, head of the E.U. border agency Frontex, told Handelsblatt that in the first quarter of this year there have already been 60,300 illegal border crossings by sea and land, more than three times as much as in the same period last year. He estimated that around 80 percent come from areas of war and crisis.
There are two parts to the Commission's plans. One relates to asylum seekers who want but have not yet received the right to remain in Europe.
At the moment asylum seekers are bound by the so-called Dublin regulation, which states that asylum claims should be handled in the country where the person first landed. Many people who come to Britain reach it by traveling across mainland Europe from countries on the edge of the continent such as Malta, Italy or Greece. The British government has often deported asylum seekers using the Dublin agreement, instead of assessing whether their actual claims for asylum are valid.
Under the Commission's proposed changes, these asylum seekers would be distributed across Europe, to reduce the regulatory burden on front-line states, which means Britain would have to make these assessments itself.
A Commission spokeswoman said on Monday she did not believe the draft presented this week will be the final version, adding “we expect this text to be drafted and redrafted.”
East European countries also object to the quotas. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said on Friday that the plan was "mad and unfair."
There may well be opt outs for countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom, which have slightly looser ties with the European Union. The U.K. and the Republic of Ireland in particular have the legal right to opt out of parts of the E.U.'s common justice and home affairs policies.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said he wants a fair deal with Britain and that the Commission will examine “in a polite, friendly and objective way any proposals, ideas or requests that the U.K. may put forward.”
Steve Peers, professor of E.U. and Human Rights Law at the University of Essex said that the European Commission is unlikely to force Britain to accept quotas. “If the European Commission wants the U.K. to remain in the E.U., as the Commission president says it does, it has to avoid making proposals which are liable to cause the most offense. That particularly applies to proposals relating to immigration, which is by far the most sensitive issue for the U.K.’s relations with the E.U.”
Meera Selva is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected] Handelsblatt correspondent Thomas Ludwig also contributed to this article.