Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
Shortly after 4.30am last Friday morning, leaders of the European Union’s 28 member states emerged from gruelling negotiations with a new strategy for tackling the bloc’s immigration crisis.
After wasting two years trying to force compulsory migrant quotas on often reluctant countries, they finally acknowledged what the UK Government and Conservative MEPs have been saying all along: that solutions should be agreed with national governments, not dictated to them.
So compulsory quotas have been replaced by a mixture of policies upon which member states can agree – such as expanding the role of the border force Frontex for example – and voluntary initiatives, such as hosting “control centres” at which newly arrived migrants will be screened.
It is regrettable that it took a dispute within Angela Merkel’s domestic coalition and a change of government in Italy to bring about this step change. But it means that the EU is finally in tune with the majority of its member governments and citizens, who want an immigration policy that is humane but firm.
What went before was clearly neither. Trying to resettle migrants with little screening, in countries where they often have no wish to live, and amongst people unwilling to accept a sudden influx, simply hardened public opinion against both Brussels and the refugees themselves.
Genuine refugees and asylum seekers need our help and should be quickly identified, processed and resettled. Economic migrants are deserving of our understanding, but must apply for visas through the proper channels. Those who attempt to jump the queue by simply turning up on Europe’s shores must be returned.
David Cameron’s intervention in 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, shows how a humane but firm approach to immigration can work. As refugees poured out of warn torn Syria in huge numbers, the then Conservative Prime Minister announced that the UK would offer sanctuary to 20,000 confirmed asylum seekers and refugees directly from camps close to the Syrian border.
This ensured that assistance was available to the people most in need, not simply those with the wherewithal to board a boat across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, ineligible economic migrants were screened out and dissuaded from risking their lives on a fruitless journey to Europe.
So far, about 11,000 refugees have arrived in Britain and started new lives under this scheme, which is ongoing. Crucially, it breaks the people smugglers’ cruel business model by providing migrants with a safe way of applying for entry to Europe as close as possible to their homes.
The EU’s new approach is a fragile compromise, but there are promising early signs. Merkel has been able to negotiate bilateral agreements with several countries over the return of asylum seekers who originally registered elsewhere. Meanwhile Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister of Poland, one of the countries which most strongly resisted compulsory quotas, told the European Parliament on Wednesday that his government was ready to invest significant sums in African countries to encourage people to stay, rather than risk their lives trying to reach Europe.
While immigration has risen up the political agenda in countries such as Germany, Italy and Denmark, migrant numbers have fallen since the dreadful summer and autumn of 2015. In 2017 there were 728,470 asylum applications in the EU. This remains a high number, but is 44 per cent down on the previous year.
But men, women and children are still drowning in the Mediterranean – more than 200 in the past week alone – and we must not turn our backs. It is encouraging that the EU now has the outline of a policy which recognises the best results come when national governments participate in initiatives willingly, not because they are forced to do so by Brussels. It has been too long coming, but I hope the immigration crisis has finally helped the EU learn this important lesson.