EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from nations bordering Syria were to gather on Thursday to discuss the migration crisis, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared Europe’s asylum rules are “obsolete”.
The meeting in Luxembourg, held after talks among the bloc’s justice and interior ministers, will bring together EU diplomacy chiefs along with representatives from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Balkan countries worst affected by the mass exodus from Syria.
Merkel said Wednesday in a speech with French President Francois Hollande to the European Parliament that a “new procedure” was needed to redistribute asylum seekers fairly throughout the 28-nation EU bloc.
In the first such joint address since the fall of the Berlin Wall, they urged the increasingly divided EU to unite to tackle a wave of problems including migration and the war in Syria.
Merkel said the Dublin process, which forces frontline states like Italy and Greece to process and welcome most migrants, “started from good intentions... but the challenges raised at our borders are from now on untenable.”
“It is exactly now that we need more Europe. We need courage and cohesion, which Europe has always shown when it was necessary,” she added.
Germany is Europe’s top destination for people fleeing war and misery in the continent’s greatest migrant influx since World War II. It expects between 800,000 and one million newcomers this year alone.
German authorities said Wednesday they had registered around 577,000 asylum seekers in the first nine months of the year, a third of whom claim to be Syrian.
Risk of ‘total war’
Hollande meanwhile admitted that the EU had reacted too slowly to the turmoil on its borders since the Arab Spring in 2011, which produced the huge wave of refugees seeking a better life in Europe.
“I acknowledge that Europe was slow in understanding that tragedy in the Middle East or Africa could not but have consequences for Europe itself,” he said.
Hollande also gave a dire warning of a regional conflagration in the Middle East that could affect Europe if the world fails to stop the slaughter in Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 has spiralled into all-out civil war.
“What happens in Syria concerns Europe, what happens there will determine the balance of the whole region for a long time,” Hollande said. “If we leave these religious clashes between Sunnis and Shiites, they will grow. Don’t think we will be sheltered, this will be a total war.”
The last time the leaders of France and Germany stood together in the parliament was 26 years ago when Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl gave a speech just weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.
In a high-profile talk show appearance later on Wednesday, Merkel defended her welcoming stance towards the refugees and said she was proud of the “friendly face” Germany had shown the world.
But she admitted that coping with the challenges posed by the influx of asylum seekers would be “a difficult task” for the country, perhaps the most challenging since the reunification of East and West Germany 25 years ago.
The EU also formally launched “Operation Sophia” on Wednesday, which gives European naval vessels in international waters off Libya the power to stop, board, seize and destroy people traffickers’ boats.
Around 3,000 people have died making the perilous crossing over the Mediterranean to Europe this year.
The first phase of the operation, which involved monitoring trafficker networks and rescuing refugees from rickety boats, has been running since June.
The UN Security Council is expected to vote on a draft resolution that would give UN approval to the naval task force as early as Thursday. The resolution is not mandatory for the European Union to take action but would provide Operation Sophia with greater legitimacy.
An Italian aircraft carrier, a French frigate and one British, one Spanish and two German ships are all involved in the mission, which follows in the footsteps of EU anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa.
“We follow the traffickers and want to arrest them and seize their ships,” Captain Stefan Klatt, who commands the Werra, one of the German ships that is taking part in the operation, told AFP.
At least three other vessels supplied by the Belgian, British and Slovenian navies are expected to arrive in the area at the end of October to complete the force, which also include four aircraft and 1,318 personnel.