Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
For a European Parliament often ignored by the British press, MEPs have generally welcomed the increased attention and the pouring over every individual statement on the UK renegotiation deal in the last fortnight. And in general, across much of the European Parliament, there has been a general feeling of goodwill towards the UK – either out of genuine affection for the British or for fear of us leaving.
There is a debate about how much difference the issue of whether or not the deal is legally binding will make when us Brits come to vote on June 23rd, and whether the secondary legislation on changes to migrant benefits will be passed by the European Parliament. In trying to explain the technicalities of the debate, I have compared the deal to a colouring book in which the EU’s governments have drawn the lines, but it is for the European Parliament to colour it in.
We would hope that the European Parliament acts as a mature institution and stays within the lines of the agreement, but many are worried that, instead, it will scrawl all over the page when the time comes to legislate – desperate for the added attention. I hope that the European Parliament will keep within the lines and deliver the content of the deal.
Last week, when the European Parliament discussed it, Gianni Pitella, the leader of the socialist group in the European Parliament, said :“Imagine two young people – Europeans, same job, same work: there is a danger one would have less rights than the other. We don’t want to see any distinction between rights in the European Union.” It is true that this intervention was less than helpful but, with so many challenges mounting up, can the European Parliament really afford to unpick the UK deal?
Some parts of the UK press have claimed that a slew of EU regulation could be coming our way after the referendum, and that it’s being held back to avoid becoming an issue during the referendum campaign. This is possibly true – but, in fairness to this European Commission, they have cut back on the amount of legislation produced since the European elections in 2014. Some of the more thorny pieces of legislation can wait, not least because the EU needs to spend all of its political capital in making some sense of the migration crisis.
As our referendum debate gets underway, the EU is now able to turn its full attention to the growing migration and refugee crisis. This week marks the six week anniversary of Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, warning that we had six weeks to save the passport-free Schengen area. Since September, eight EU countries have restored border checks, and fences and barbed wire are becoming a feature of European borders across southern Europe and the Balkans.
Today, the European Commission is expected to publish a report urging these countries to drop border checks by the end of this year. Given that more migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean in the first two months of this year than during the first six months of last year, this is probably optimistic.
No borders between Schengen countries had generally been welcomed by both businesses and citizens in these countries, but on the understanding that Schengen’s external border would be protected. As long as the external border of the Schengen area remains open, internal borders between countries will continue to be re-erected.
We now go into this summer in a really dangerous position. A sense of willingness to help genuine refugees 12 months ago has now turned into finger-pointing and anger. The southern countries – especially Greece – are not able to handle the situation, and frankly they have been remiss in not asking for help from other EU countries. The EU is now looking at providing aid to the UNHCR and other agencies within our own borders.
It seems hard now to find a way out of this mess. Frankly, too many in the EU are looking at solutions for next year or the year after, such as a European border guard – able to be deployed even if the country concerned objects – or a review of the Dublin Regulation that decides which country should process asylum applications.
The reality is that what we really need to focus on the basics of border control to put in place systems to process all arrivals, distinguish between genuine refugees, who deserve our help, and economic migrants, who should be returned to apply through legal migration channels. Pressure should be placed on governments such as Pakistan’s to accept their nationals back when they are returned. Ships and equipment are needed in the sea to stop people drowning – with NATO perhaps playing a leading role to pick up people from the sea and to target the traffickers. My ECR colleagues Timothy Kirkhope, Monica Macovei and Jussi Halla-aho are working on new legislation that helps to return those who are not genuine refugees, and to check people coming into the EU against criminal databases.
Will all this be enough to solve the current crisis? No. But it might be enough to slow it down, and to discourage people from making the journey in the first place. Frankly, until Mrs Merkel makes it clear that she made a well-intentioned mistake, and cancels her invitation, this crisis will run over this summer as well. One of the things that us Brits are admired for is our sense of understatement. In that spirit, it is safe to say that the next few months were never going to be dull.