New migrant tragedy at sea changes little as EU leaders forge ahead with tougher borders plans

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As rescue efforts in the Mediterranean Sea flagged last week, and bodies were found more frequently than survivors from among the more than 500 people missing after an overcrowded fishing trawler sank, the European Commission’s president was asked for her thoughts.

“It is horrible, what happened, and the more urgent is that we act,” Ursula von der Leyen told reporters at the headquarters of the European Union’s executive branch in Brussels.

The priorities, she said, should be to help the authorities in Tunisia — where people bound for Europe sometimes leave from — to stabilize its economy and better manage migration, and to finalize the long-awaited reform of the EU’s asylum rules, which is unlikely to happen before next year.

Never mind that the trawler left from Libya, or the admittedly slim chance that survivors might be found, or that the disaster might be the worst ever in the Mediterranean. Von der Leyen’s reply stood in stark contrast to the actions of a predecessor a decade ago.

Standing near the coffins of scores of drowned migrants, having traveled to the small Italian island of Lampedusa after the deaths of around 300 people in October 2013, then European Commission President José Manuel Barroso swore that such tragedies “should never happen again.”

In response, the Italian navy set up a search and rescue mission, but it was mothballed a year later over concern that it only encouraged more migrants to come. Fears of a creating a “pull factor” have dogged everything that the EU has tried to do since.

At a summit starting on Thursday, EU leaders will discuss von der Leyen’s plans. As countries like Austria, Hungary and Poland block any meaningful attempt to equitably share out refugees arriving in Greece, Italy, Malta or Spain, the work focuses by default on preventing migrants from entering.

But the gathering has the potential to open a can of political worms even when the focus is on mostly uncontroversial issues like outsourcing the EU’s migrant problems; such is the sensitive nature of asylum rules in Europe.

More than 50,300 attempts were made to enter the EU without authorization from January to May, according to the border and coast guard agency Frontex. It’s more than double the number in the same period last year, and the most since 2017.

In a letter to the leaders, von der Leyen highlighted the need to “limit irregular departures” from Africa and Turkiye, to “fight against migrant smuggling” and “work with partner countries” to ensure that people don’t leave or transit those countries.

“Alternative legal pathways,” should be found to enter the right way, she wrote. This often means the possibility for people to be resettled in Europe on humanitarian grounds if the UN’s refugee agency recommends it, and when an EU country is ready to take some in.

“Comprehensive partnerships with third countries,” are key to the outsourcing approach.

Under a new budget plan, Turkiye would be given an additional 3.5 billion euros ($3.8 billion) to manage Syrian refugees. That would bring the EU’s total migrant support to the country in recent years to more than 13 billion euros ($14.2 billion).

Tunisia would receive 105 million euros ($115 million) and equipment like patrol boats, radar systems and cameras; Morocco, 152 million euros ($166 million) worth of “migration budget support;” Egypt, 23 million euros ($25 million) to buy boats, and up to 87 million euros ($95 million) to tighten its borders, notably with Libya, where most migrants leave from.

Von der Leyen noted that Libya received two more EU-funded patrol boats in February, and has “rescued or intercepted” 7,562 people trying to leave this year. In March, a UN fact-finding mission said that crimes against humanity are being committed against migrants in Libya.

It accused the EU of aiding and abetting the abuse of migrants through its policies.

The centerpiece of EU policy is a work in progress: the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The 27 member countries reached a landmark agreement on part of the asylum reform package earlier this month.

They appear to have struck the balance between which countries should take responsibility for migrants when they arrive and how much support other member nations should provide. But this is unlikely to satisfy the European Parliament, which must endorse the deal.

Lawmakers insist that countries must accept mandatory refugee quotas, which could torpedo the plan, and the leaders might complicate matters irretrievably if they fiddle with what’s already been agreed on.

For those inside the European Council, where the 27 heads of state and government will meet over two days, the reform package — several years in the making — won’t bring an end to the drownings at sea.

“You will not with the Pact stop flows of migrants, but at least you solve an issue inside,” by boosting border security, migrant screening, and ties with transit countries, a senior official said this week. He briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the migration talks.

What is clear is that saving people traveling aboard unseaworthy boats, like those from Libya earlier this month, isn’t a high priority. The EU doesn’t actively patrol the Mediterranean in search of migrants in trouble. Its ships only respond to emergency mayday calls — an obligation under international law.

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