Brussels clashes with Britain over migrant plan
(AFP) The European Union clashed with Britain on Wednesday as it launched a new plan to save thousands of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean that includes controversial resettlement quotas for refugees.
British interior minister Theresa May called for economic migrants to be sent back, saying the EU's policy of dealing with asylum claims of people rescued at sea encouraged more to risk their lives by attempting the journey.
The EU plan's most controversial elements are a mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers across the 28-member bloc and the use of European military force against smugglers in Libyan waters.
Britain, Ireland and Denmark have the ability to opt out of the plan, which comes amid an unprecedented wave of migrants fleeing conflict and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East.
"I wonder how anyone could maintain that this could make the situation worse," European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans told a press conference in response to May's comments.
"If we then do nothing, we make the situation worse for people in trouble and lose credibility in the eyes of our citizens who have demanded that we do something about the tragedies in the Mediterranean."
Timmermans, the right-hand man to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, called on EU states to show "solidarity" with countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta, which bear the burden of most migrant arrivals.
'Turn migrants back'
More than 5,000 migrants, many escaping civil war in Syria, have died over the past 18 months while trying to cross the Mediterranean, often on flimsy rubber dinghies or fishing boats.
Writing in The Times newspaper, May confirmed that Britain would take no part in the Commission's quota plan and said the EU should be pushing back economic migrants.
"I disagree with the suggestion by the EU's high representative, Federica Mogherini, that 'no migrants' intercepted at sea should be 'sent back against their will'," she wrote.
"Such an approach would only act as an increased pull factor across the Mediterranean and encourage more people to put their lives at risk."
May's comments also underscore the clashes to come between newly re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron and his European partners as he pushes for reform on migration and other issues ahead of a referendum on Britain's EU membership.
If Britain, Ireland and Denmark opt out then the other 25 EU states can still pass the plan, which is set to go before European leaders at a summit at the end of June.
But that could spark anger from other countries, especially as immigration is such a sensitive political issue for many member states.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban - whose country has no opt-out - last week called the quota plan "mad and unfair."
No boots on the ground
Until now, EU states have admitted refugees on a voluntary basis under the principle that their asylum requests are processed in the country where they land, not the country they are trying to get to.
The commission said it would table a legislative proposal by the end of the year to establish binding quotas on member states to admit migrants but it set out no immediate quota numbers.
Under the plan the EU will also resettle 20,000 refugees directly from third countries.
The military angle has also run into difficulties, with Mogherini winning little support during an appeal to the UN Security Council on Monday for its backing for the use of European military force against smugglers in Libyan territorial waters.
During the press conference in Brussels, Mogherini reiterated that there would be no European "boots on the ground" in North Africa and that any action to destroy people smugglers' boats would be purely naval.
Mogherini also rejected May's criticisms.
"This doesn't mean everyone will come to Europe, but for sure all people we can save at sea will not be sent back before they can be identified," she said. "This is the basic principle of international conventions."