Migration back on EU agenda as boat arrivals increase with good weather

Michael Barnier calls for suspension of immigration and renegotiation of Schengen

The issue of migration is back on the agenda in Europe this week after good weather saw a surge in people crossing the Mediterranean, leading to calls to revive long-stalled debates about reform.

Over the weekend more than 2,100 people arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa by boat after crossing from north Africa in makeshift overcrowded vessels, in a sign of a resumption of the seasonal sea crossings as the weather warms.

Following the arrivals, EU commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson called on member states to show solidarity with Italy by taking in some of the people who had arrived, and to resume long-stalled negotiations on migration reform.

“Migration patterns between Africa and Europe have a long history that we should acknowledge and build on. However, migration needs to be properly managed. This requires combined and coherent action from all involved,” the Swedish commissioner said after ministers met to discuss the issue.


"Since 2014, more than 21,000 people have lost their lives at sea or gone missing on their way to the European Union. This is a true tragedy. Saving lives is a shared objective on either side of the Mediterranean. Fighting the source of these life-threatening journeys is our common responsibility, and preventing people from entering into these dangerous journeys."

Ms Johansson admitted that progress on agreeing a new EU migration pact had been “slow”.

Country of arrival

Under EU laws, people must claim asylum in the first country in which they arrive, which border states such as Italy, Malta and Greece say places a disproportionate burden on them to accommodate even migrants whose ultimate destination is northern member states. Some 530,000 migrants have reached Italian shores since the beginning of 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The Mediterranean countries have called for assistance in processing asylum claims and for other member states to accept quotas of asylum seekers and refugees, but this is strongly resisted by some governments in the east and north.

The European Commission has proposed reforms including providing legal pathways to migrate to Europe directly from African and Middle Eastern countries, working with departure countries such as Libya to tackle smuggling networks, and increasing voluntary returns of people who are already in the EU.

In a reflection of hardened attitudes in national politics over the issue, the former top European Commission official Michel Barnier described the EU's external borders as a "sieve" and called for immigration to be suspended for "three or five years" in an television interview as he seeks to carve out a role in national politics in his native France.

“I’m not talking about students or refugees, who we need to treat with humanity and care, but we need to examine all the procedures, we have to discuss Schengen with our neighbours, we have to apply controls on borders, we need to be more rigorous,” Mr Barnier said.

The 70-year-old former chief Brexit negotiator for the EU has repeatedly dropped hints that he would like to run as a challenger to French president Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 election as a candidate for the centre-right Les Républicains party.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times