Humanitarian tragedy hangs over Cameron’s head and puts referendum timing in doubt, writes Bill Jamieson
From Calais to Budapest, from Vienna to mainland Greece: with every day Europe’s migrant crisis is deepening.
A worsening humanitarian tragedy is fast turning into the biggest crisis for the EU in its history.
More than 153,000 migrants have sought EU entry so far this year. This total is growing daily. Yesterday saw more thousands of desperate migrants arriving in mainland Greece, with two ships carrying more than 4,200 people arriving at Piraeus. This takes the total arriving in Greece alone to 23,000 in the past week, pushing the total for the year so far to 160,000.
In Hungary some 2,000 people, mostly from the Middle East, remain stranded outside a railway station in Budapest after police stopped them travelling through the EU. Meanwhile trespassers on the tracks of the Channel Tunnel and reports of migrants on train roofs disrupted trains between France and the UK overnight.
The situation is out of control because EU member states cannot agree on joint action and because any and every attempt to process migrant entry is overwhelmed by sheer numbers and the complexity of the task. Many of those heading to Germany in the recent influx were Kosovans and Albanians, so the problem of sorting out nationality is going to prove a real headache for them and overstretched “front line” states like Hungary. The enormity of the influx is overwhelming the capacity of governments to cope.
“Crisis summits” are now planned in Brussels to deal with the total breakdown in its open borders policy. Good luck with that. For the UK there is every prospect that the immigration issue could turn the EU referendum into a vicious and divisive battle – one that the government could well lose. This could force Prime Minister David Cameron, with threadbare results to show for his “re-negotiation”, to delay the timing of the vote from his preferred option of the spring of next year well into 2017.
Already Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann has come close to tying UK support for country quotas to Cameron’s “catalogue of demands” for re-negotiation. This, he hinted, is a two-way street. German chancellor Angela Merkel has dropped similar hints.
The growing pressure on the UK to agree on an EU-wide quota system to take in migrants fleeing the Middle East and North Africa could dwarf the plea from Labour leader contender Yvette Cooper this week for towns and cities across the UK – including Scotland – to take in 1,000 migrants apiece, with the prospect of settlement for 100,000 desperate refugees.
The proposal has gained sympathy and support from those urging the UK government to do something positive. And many in Scotland would like to see this initiative followed up. It takes an insurmountably large problem and breaks it into tiny pieces – altogether less threatening and with which we feel better able to cope.
It also satisfies a heartfelt desire among many to provide immediate help, backed up with support from third sector and voluntary organisations. How can small groups of a thousand migrants scattered across the UK not be accommodated, absorbed and found work in this way?
But it is fraught with logistical problems. And it would almost certainly fuel demands in Brussels that the UK takes tens of thousands more. There is the immediate problem of registration and assessment, requiring centres such as Dungavel where migrants can be gathered before dispersal to communities which agree to take them – or deportation. Remember Dungavel? It was a running sore.
Cash-strapped local authorities would be loath to undertake commitments to take migrants without a guarantee of funding from central government. Even if the money was forthcoming, it may be difficult to sell this financial allocation to a public that has had to live with seven years of budget constraints and cutbacks.
All this assumes that migrants would be willing to stay put in the communities to which they were assigned.
We could apportion a thousand new migrants to, say, Motherwell or Ardrossan. But they may choose to migrate elsewhere. Finally, there is the problem of deporting applicants deemed unsuitable because of employment or security considerations, and the prospect of lengthy appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. These could drag on for years.
With care and patience, many of these problems might be overcome providing numbers are kept within clearly understood and enforceable limits.
But time and patience are in shortening supply. And it is increasingly hard to set limits when thousands more migrants are arriving at the borders of the EU each day, posing major security and logistical problems. Such is their plight that not even more policing at Calais or razor wire along the southern borders of Hungary are proving effective barriers.
“Regaining control of our borders” or “stopping the problem at source” are regular cries. But “at source” means Syria – and there is little public appetite for military intervention there.
So it is not hard to see in the current atmosphere where the battle lines in the forthcoming EU “remain or leave” referendum are going to be drawn. We are set to hear, more often and more loudly, that if Britain wants to control its borders, it will have to do so unilaterally, by leaving the EU.
All the schemes proposed so far – tightening benefits, requiring evidence of a job – miss the point that, as long as we are in the EU, we cannot control who settles here or in what numbers.
And, as MEP Daniel Hannan warns, there will come a point when exasperated southern Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy give identity documents to all those migrants who want to move on and settle – whether in Germany or Britain or Sweden.
“The only question, ” he adds, “is whether this moment comes before or after Britain’s referendum. If it comes before, no force on Earth will persuade people to remain in. If it comes after we’ve voted to stay, it will be too late to change our minds.”
Meanwhile, the government will do what governments have always done: fudge and fumble and muddle – and hope that something, somehow, will turn up.