Cameron bares teeth over EU migration

David Cameron in Brussels (file pic March 2015) Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption David Cameron says he wants to redefine the UK's relationship with Europe

The first days in office are challenging for any new government and this will certainly be a busy week for UK Prime Minister David Cameron - who, amongst other things, says he has already rolled up his sleeves to change the UK's relationship with Europe.

The first "fight" with Brussels already loomed large on Monday in the British papers.

The front-page lead story in The Times reported that "Brussels forces Britain to accept Med migrants".

Migration is clearly a huge story, and a controversial one for the UK and Europe.

It has been for years, with an economic downturn and anti-immigrant political parties on the rise on the one hand, while at the same time television screens bring the horrors of a humanitarian crisis on our shores straight into our living rooms as we watch desperate people from the Middle East and Africa arriving, some dying, in their boatloads.

The European Commission, under new President Jean-Claude Juncker, says something decisive must be done.

He and his migration commissioner will on Wednesday unveil a migration strategy for the EU. Some parts are extremely controversial.

Included are two proposals strongly opposed by the UK, which says the migration crisis must be tackled by other means:

  • To introduce legal and safe migration paths to Europe so that people do not turn to traffickers, risking their lives in the process. The Commission suggests this would apply to individuals meeting certain criteria, such as those qualifying as refugees or having a particular skill set attractive to the labour market in Europe
  • To introduce refugee quotas for all EU countries, sharing the number of asylum seekers more equally across the EU. The distribution system would be based on a number of criteria including unemployment figures and national GDP levels

Now, the Cameron government wants to curb migration to the UK by EU citizens as part of his new deal with Brussels. So he certainly will not agree to increase the number of non-EU migrants to the UK.

And, as he has promised the UK to have "less Brussels" in daily life, he will oppose any migration quotas "imposed" by Brussels.

So actually this migration headline is less of a challenge and more of a gift for the new Cameron government.

Image copyright AP
Image caption A float with rescued migrants during an operation on 8 May 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea

It will be a chance to publicly bare its teeth at Brussels - the Home Office has put out a strongly worded statement about opposing Commission proposals to introduce non-voluntary migrant quotas - and to show some muscle-flexing to Eurosceptics, including in the Tory party itself, ahead of EU-UK renegotiations starting in earnest.

Nothing new

In fact, the Commission proposals are not new. They have been rejected in the past by UK Home Secretary Theresa May and quite a number of her European counterparts.

The Netherlands and Denmark will hear none of it.

France is nervous about the idea, with the anti-immigration National Front doing so well in the polls, and countries in Eastern and Central Europe, which house very few asylum seekers, do not want to start opening their doors now.

Estonia and Slovakia have already said "no" outright. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban described the migration quota plan as "mad" in a radio interview.

The migration strategy will be debated at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels next month and you can expect a heated argument.

It is not just the European Commission pushing the quota proposal.


Mediterranean migrants: in numbers

In 2014:

  • 219,000 people arrived in Europe
  • 3,500 deaths/missing

In 2015 (1 Jan- 27 April):

  • 46,000 arrivals in Europe
  • More than 1,750 deaths/missing

source: UNHCR


Powerful Germany backs the plan - loudly - as the country that receives the lion share of asylum application in Europe- 200,000 last year alone. Berlin fears that number could double in 2015.

The Mediterranean frontline states of Greece, Italy and Malta are also in favour of refugee-sharing, for obvious reasons.

When it comes to home affairs issues like asylum, the UK has a so-called opt-in clause, which allows it to decide whether or not to adopt EU legislation.

So, whatever is eventually agreed on migration at EU level, it is hard to see how quotas could be forced on the UK.