So far this year, over 2,000 people died in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe. Most politicians in the EU say the situation is unacceptable, but Europe is facing a deadlock in which both possible ways out of the crisis are blocked by the other side.
One of the two options was promoted by Thorsten Frei, chief whip of centre-right CDU/CSU group (EPP) in the German parliament, this summer.
Way more far-reaching than the “historic” deal EU countries agreed on in June, Frei proposes to scrap the individual right to claim asylum for those who reach the EU by foot or boat – most headlines stop here – and replace it with a guaranteed annual intake of 300,000 to 400,000 vulnerable people each year.
Left-leaning politicians and political activists were quick and strong to dismiss the proposal.
“The CDU/CSU is departing into an asylum dream world with right-wing populism,” Erik Marquardt, Green MEP and asylum expert, posted on social media platform X within hours after Frei launched his proposal in an op-ed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
“This is a stimulus programme for the right-wing radicals,” Marquardt added, referring to far-right AfD, which is polling second after Frei’s CDU and way ahead of Marquardt’s own party in current polls in Germany.
Indeed, it would be naive to view Frei’s proposal as completely independent of the AfD’s current success in the polls.
The CDU under its conservative leader Friedrich Merz is clearly testing the waters of how far to the right it can go to win back voters – and how successful it can be with such a strategy.
Thorsten Frei’s proposal is, nevertheless, worth being discussed as a possible way forward on how to solve the crisis, and that is exactly the point he makes.
In the current system, “in order to ensure that as few people as possible make use of their right [to request asylum], we link it to the precondition of an application on European soil and thus initiate a race that is far too often fatal,” Frei argued in his FAZ op-ed, rubbing salt in the wound of those criticising him.
Later, he doubled down, saying that he, too, would support rescue-at-sea missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Rescue-at-sea missions, which are the second and arguably more straightforward option to prevent refugees and migrants from dying, are normally much more vocally pushed for by left-wing parties and NGOs.
However, with his proposal implemented, “the journey then does not lead to a European shore, but back to where they came from,” Frei told WELT, indicating that rescue-at-sea could then gain much broader political backing.
There are numerous legal issues with this approach – including with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Convention – many of which were pointed out by migration researcher Ruud Koopmans of Humboldt University Berlin. Koopmans, however, said he would support the general direction of Frei’s proposal nevertheless.
Because even in the current situation, without Frei’s proposal being implemented, the number of people who can come to Europe is already limited, Koopmans argues – only by means of a more cruel selection.
Currently, “the upper limit is set by the Sahara, it is set by the Mediterranean, and it is set by the people smugglers and the incredible sums they demand,” Koopmans said in a TV interview in August.
In Koopmans’ view, it is clear that Frei’s proposal would only work in combination with more agreements with third countries, similar to that recently agreed with Tunisia. This would be necessary to have a place for migrants to be returned to – it will, in any case, remain illegal to push migrants back into countries where they are at imminent risk.
Nevertheless, it is somewhat surprising that the argument most often used by Greens, pro-asylum NGOs and Social Democrats was to call Frei’s proposal “unrealistic”.
Not only was this meant by Marquardt’s “dream world” statement, but also said by Dirk Wiese, deputy parliamentary group chief of Germany’s social democrats, and Wiebke Judith of German NGO “Pro Asyl”.
But the option they are pushing for, a broad, potentially state-funded rescue-at-sea mission that actually brings people to Europe, is equally “unrealistic” as long as right-wing parties are in power in major EU countries (Italy, Poland), or liberal governments have to do the maximum to prevent them from gaining power (France).
In today’s world, it is not only legal texts and international agreements that constrain our options, but also political realities.
The tragedy of Europe’s asylum policy is: Every solution that could end the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea is somewhat “unrealistic” (in the sense of political feasibility, legal feasibility, or both).
It’s a deadly deadlock, in which every actual deal reached in the “compromise-making machine” Brussels does not come close to solving the problem.
In democracies, the usual way to overcome deadlocks is elections.
Luckily, there will be one held next year – one in which not just Germans or Italians will have a say, but all Europeans.
One can only hope that asylum policy will indeed be politicised during the upcoming campaign so that its direction can be determined into a less deadly future — one way or the other.
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Look out for…
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[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald/Alice Taylor]