Britain should “hang its head in shame” over Syrian refugee crisis

Amnesty International condemns Europe's failure to resettle Syrian refugees.

As winter settles in, the dangers faced by Syrian refugees will increase – many lack adequate shelter, fuel, food or medicine. Around 2.3 million people have fled the civil war in Syria, most to neighbouring countries. According to UNHCR, 838,000 have fled to Lebanon, 567,000 to Jordan and 540,000 to Turkey – the three countries bearing the greatest refugee burden. These countries are not only struggling with the economic cost of the refugee crisis, but face serious political repercussions too, with fears that sectarian violence is spilling beyond Syria’s borders.

According to an Amnesty International has said that European leaders should “hang their head in shame” at their failure to take in Syrian refugees. Only ten European countries have agreed to host and resettle Syrian refugees – and the UK is not one of them. The most generous is Germany, which has agreed to take 20,000 and the remaining countries are taking on just 2,340 refugees together.

In the UK, some have responded by pointing out that its pledge of £500m of humanitarian aid to Syria is more than all other EU countries combined. According to Oxfam in September, the UK has given 154 per cent of its fair share to Syria (relative to its GDP) so this is something to be proud of. In contrast, France – which has consistently taken a more hawkish stance on Syria – has only given 45 per cent of its fair share.

Britain’s commitment to humanitarian aid is a positive, but this shouldn’t be used as an excuse to close the door to refugees. Perhaps the government, wary of anti-immigration rhetoric, is afraid of how the public might react to several thousand Syrians being resettled here. But the reality is the UK can, and should, absorb and resettle several thousand refugees.

Meanwhile, thousands are dying attempting to make it into Europe anyway. In October 650 migrants and refugees died trying to enter Europe by sea from North Africa. Greece has been pushing Syrian migrants back to sea, and Bulgaria has detained around 5,000. It’s not enough to simply hand over cash to a crisis we pretend is far away, while the victims of war are dying on our doorsteps.

Syrian refugees take part in a demonstration at the Zaatari refugee camp, near the border with Syria. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.