Roberta Metsola: EU leaders must show more responsibility in dealing with refugee crisis

Written by Rajnish Singh on 7 October 2015 in Interviews
Interviews

Roberta Metsola talks to the Parliament Magazine about Europe's greatest humanitarian crisis.

Maltese EPP member Roberta Metsola is angry about the EU's inability to deal with the current refugee crisis. 

In a passionate speech in September's Strasbourg plenary session, she said, "Member states can easily agree on how many plastic bags they can throw away, but when bodies of children are washing up on our shores, and we still cannot agree on how to deal with refugees humanely, it seems to me everything else we do is of little use."

Metsola told the Parliament Magazine why she drew the comparison, "I found it very sad that it was only after we all saw the photo of the dead body of baby Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach that suddenly everybody stood up to make political statements."


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As a qualified lawyer that used to work at the Maltese permanent representation on justice and home affairs, and also briefly as a legal advisor to former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Metsola already has EU policy experience of working on this issue.

The deputy is keen to point out that Aylan Kurdi is not the only child to drown in the Mediterranean. "All you have to do is to ask any member of the navies involved in saving refugees from the sea in the last 10 years, and they will tell you they regularly see the bodies of dead babies and children."

She adds, "Of course this elicits a certain amount of frustration from Mediterranean member states."

Malta and other southern European countries have for years unsuccessfully called on fellow EU members to do more, especially in sharing the burden of rescuing and processing people trying to cross the Mediterranean. 

Metsola remembers that even when she was working in the permanent representation it was hard to convince member states to "face up to the migration challenge and the need for shared responsibility."

However, the MEP is keen to focus on what can be done rather than on previous years of inaction. The pictures of the dead toddler "meant that leaders of member states, including those that were previously silent or were not very engaged in discussions on the migration situation, are now saying 'we need to do something!'"

According to the UN's refugee agency (UNCHR), over 520,000 people have already crossed the Mediterranean this year. The vast majority of these are people trying to flee the civil war in Syria.

She accepts that the current situation is shifting from being a migration problem to a humanitarian crisis. "When we started working on the report, the Syrian civil war and the impact of refugees arriving in central and eastern European countries was far less felt than it is now."

As co-rapporteur of the Parliament's report on the situation in the Mediterranean and the need for a holistic EU approach to migration, Metsola is eager that the report puts forward long-term solutions, hence the importance of the word 'holistic' in the title. 

"We wanted to get away from the regular resolutions this Parliament adopts. We only find ourselves, voting for a similar resolution a few months later…and MEPs complain about the fact nothing has been done so far.” 

Recognising that there are no easy answers to the current situation, Metsola reasons that, "coming up with a report that has the backing of Parliament is not going to be easy. We need to strike the appropriate balance between what we term a humanitarian crisis, what we term a person who is a refugee and how you can balance that with effective management of the borders of the EU."

Metsola fully supports the European Commission's planned quota system for distributing 120,000 refugees among member states. 

"I am encouraged by the plan, I can see there is a genuine political will by both the Commission and its President, Jean-Claude Juncker, I believe the plan is bold and the quota system is something that we have supported for a long time."

Nevertheless, she has been discouraged by the lack of the ability of the member states to even agree to a voluntary mechanism, despite the desperation of many of the people crossing the Mediterranean to get to northern European countries.

The refugee crisis is not only proving to be a humanitarian problem; it is fast becoming an existential crisis for the EU, challenging its core values and principles. 

Clear differences are emerging between member states on how best to deal with refugees. This is placing a major strain on one of the key pillars of the EU, the principle of free movement and the Schengen area. 

In addition, there are domestic pressures on EU leaders with anti-refugee demonstrations taking place in Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has drawn particular criticism of his handling of refugees trying to cross in his country to reach Germany. 

In a widely reported interview with German magazine Spiegel, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann compared Hungary's treatment of refugees to "memories of our continent's darkest period."

Though Metsola did not want to be drawn into 'naming and shaming' member states, she was keen to stress that she recognises individual governments face their own political domestic pressures. 

However, she adds, "I think the most important thing is…political responsibility, to make sure you do not spread hate or be populist in your speeches."

She goes on to add, "Here, I want to give credit to Angela Merkel. Even though she is under pressure domestically, she is still being extremely strong in her defence of protection for refugees."

Despite the major differences between member states, Metsola calls on EU leaders to remember Europe's shared history. 

"I would like to think that even though there are differences, we will all remember how the EU was built, where we as people needed help 50-60 years ago, and how we can rise up to help deal with this [humanitarian] challenge."

She stresses, however, that, “I am not saying we need to completely open our doors to everybody, but we need to understand there are people who are in need of protection. It's our responsibility to grant that."

Public and political opinion within Europe is building up to find a way to reallocate refugees, but member states cannot agree unanimously to accept the Commission's plan. The EU had to resort to evoking qualified majority voting (QMV) during September's emergency Council summit meeting in order to force countries to accept the proposals.

For Metsola, "The route may have been difficult for member states, and it is unfortunate that this has exposed division in our Union, but I am confident that we will manage to overcome this. Despite the bruising process, this is nevertheless a good immediate response."

Although agreeing a way of relocating refugees was important, "it cannot be the 'be-all-and-end-all' of EU action."

By taking a 'holistic' approach, "we have to move on from emergency measures and look at long term-strategies, together with the UN, international partners and other countries in the region. This is a global reality and we need a worldwide response."

Other measures she wishes considered are to identify the root causes of why people leave their country, see where development aid is going and address the issue of decreasing food aid. 

Added to that, Metsola wants to develop the idea of a list of safe countries that are not threatened by war or turmoil, so that people who are no longer in need of refugee protection can be returned.

Accepting that Syrian refugees will be staying for a while given the current state of the civil war, she wanted any future policies to include programmes to help train those people who want to return with the skills to help rebuild their country.

Although the UK is not part of any EU reallocation plan, following their justice and home affairs opt-out clause on accepting refugees through the commission plan, Metsola is quite supportive of Prime Minister David Cameron's policy. He seeks to directly fund refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and accept 20,000 people over the next five years.

"There are discussions as to whether it is more effective to help refugees in Europe or in the refugee camps near Syria. What I would want to do, and my ultimate aim, is to stop people from dying when they try to reach Europe. If that means the possibility of people being resettled directly in the EU, then I would be the first person to support this."

With hundreds of thousands of people being allowed to settle in Europe over such a short period of time, Metsola understood the need for policies to help integrate the refugees into wider European society as quickly as possible. 

"What is clear is that integration policies in most countries have failed. There is ghettoisation in some European town and cities, where refugees have not been able to integrate quickly and properly. This has led to cultural upheaval and social unrest."

She called on national governments not to "turn a blind eye or shirk their responsibilities" and recognise where there were gaps in social services for health workers, housing and education.

She was also clear that if voters are to have any confidence in a plan that is generous in accepting refugees, those who are not refugees cannot be granted asylum.

Given the emotive nature of the refugee crisis and how the photo of baby Aylan Kurdi galvanised public and political opinion, Roberta Metsola admitted that, "although I am not an emotional person, I have children of the same age. It would be inhuman of me not be affected by the pictures we have seen this summer."

She continued, "I think it is our responsibility to move on from emotions and that is what Aylan Kurdi would want us to do so that this does not happen again. Let's make Europe an example to the rest of the world."

"I am encouraged by the plan, I can see there is a genuine political will by both the Commission and its President Jean-Claude Juncker…I believe the plan is both bold and the quota system is something that we have supported for a long time."

 

About the author

Rajnish Singh is commissioning editor of the Parliament Magazine

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