African migrants stranded on a boat. Photo: Getty
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"Shameful consequences?": Europe contemplates Australian response to African migrants

Will the EU's contemplation of Australia's "solution" to the migration crisis, denying all those rescued at sea the right to settle, end in "shameful consequences"?

When European leaders meet today, they are contemplating a radical overall of the treatment of questions of refugees and migrants. A military approach, which envisages naval vessels halting the exodus from Africa, is being considered.

No longer will anyone – men, women or children – be able to set sail from Libya with any hope of finding sanctuary in Europe.

This was confirmed by the British Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, who told the Andrew Marr programme: “we have to break the link between rescuing people from the Mediterranean and settlement because they [the migrants and refugees] will keep coming if they think they will be settled.”

Fallon complained that smugglers are phoning the Italian coast guard in advance and informing that their human cargo is settling sail and where to find their vessel.

Until now, anyone rescued by naval vessels at sea has been transported to Italy or Greece and put ashore. Fallon and his European colleagues believe this must end.

The EU agenda for the meeting says consideration being given to:

  • relocation/resettlement
     
  • return/ readmission/reintegration
     
  • cooperation with countries of origin and transit policy

Human rights activists fear something much more dramatic is being considered.

There are real concerns that the distinction between economic migrants (who can be returned) from refugees (who must be given sanctuary under international law) will be maintained in terms of this new policy.

Médecins Sans Frontières has issued a statement warning of what it calls “the shameful consequences of EU member states ignoring their humanitarian duty”. MSF says that the European leaders have to “radically rethink their policies” so that they can offer “safe and legal ways for people to seek refuge and asylum in Europe”.

 

The Australian model

This new approach appears to mirror the Australian policy, which denies all those rescued at sea the right to settle in the country.

The Australians ensure that no one who attempts to arrive in the country without permission can remain. They are held in a series of offshore detention facilities on Nauru and Manus island.

If fully implemented this approach would mean establishing enclaves along the North African coast or detention centres in countries as diverse as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. There are suggestions of establishing a major holding centre in Italy.

The basis for the EU’s response was laid out in a 700-page plan, which has yet to be made public.

 

Refugees, not economic migrants

The recent media coverage of the situation in Calais, where thousands of Africans and Syrians are attempting to board lorries and cars to reach Britain, suggests that everyone is an economic migrant.

Amnesty International says this is simply incorrect.

Steven Symonds, Amnesty’s refugee expert, points to remarks by David Cameron earlier this month, when the Prime Minister accepted that this is not always the case. Cameron put down the flood of migrants to: “the combination of the failed states and criminal gangs in North Africa  driving desperate migrants across the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching our shores”.

“This is right,” says Symonds. “These people are being pushed – they have been driven from their homes and are not trying to come to Europe to find a land of milk and honey.”

Amnesty would like to see Britain joining other EU nations in accepting its share of refugees. But this is unlikely to happen.

The latest indication from the EU summit is that as few as 5,000 people will be accepted as refugees. The rest will simply be repatriated. How the EU will return thousands to a state with a human rights record as notorious as Eritrea has yet to be spelled out.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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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.