Portugal divided over controversial Mediterranean migrant quota

As the world’s attention is focused on the Mediterranean migrant crisis and all its implications for Europe, Portugal has shown itself to be deeply divided over the EU quota plan which would see the country absorbing over 700 refugees over the next two years. Taken in context, the quota would involve Portugal increasing its influx of asylum seekers by 1760%.

The country’s Foreign Affairs minister Rui Machete said that the 18-fold increase would require “a very large effort” by Portugal.

Meantime, the country has still to “take a position” over whether it will join the EU naval mission being mounted to destroy illegal trafficking networks based in Libya that have seen over 50,000 migrants flooding into Europe this year alone and a further 1,800 men, women and children dying in unseaworthy overcrowded boats.

It is a subject that is dividing Europe, not just Portugal. Already Spain and Hungary have reacted unfavourably to the proposed EU quotas, as has the UK.

Ireland and Denmark are being allowed to “opt out”, while countries that have up until now been bearing the brunt of the crisis – Germany, Malta and Italy in particular – are all for the idea.

But for a Portugal that last year authorised only 40 requests out of a universe of 155, the prospect of 704 migrants needs to be carefully “analysed”, says Machete.

Coming out of the meeting in Brussels where EU chiefs signalled the go-ahead for military operations in a bid to stem the crisis, Machete told reporters that the government has “not yet taken a position” on the quota, and needs to look at it from a number of angles – not least the “capacity of our economy”.

Machete was pre-empted days before by Justice Minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz who declared: “Europe went into other countries for centuries without asking permission, so we cannot base our discussion on purely economic logic.”

Elsewhere, former PSD prime minister Pedro Santana Lopes – now in charge of Lisbon’s Santa Casa da Misericórdia charitable institution – told Rádio Renascença (RR) that the charity could feasibly take on only “half” the 704 quota.

“We will do everything (we can) to receive them. It’s important that we get the financial help as this (kind of intervention) has costs, but the question is not only financial. It is the capacity of human resources to take care of (these) people; the physical availability of places for them,” he stressed.

“I just hope Lisbon doesn’t get all the 700,” he added, saying “half” would already be a “considerable effort”.

Thus the emphasis now is on Portugal coming up with a consensus as Europe forges ahead with its military plan.

“Doubts” also over EU military plan
But if the ability to take on a 1760% increase in migrants is an issue, so too is Portugal’s readiness to embark on military action.

Talking once again from Brussels, Rui Machete explained that any government go-ahead to involve troops would first have to be authorised by the superior council for national defence.

He said the “third phase” of the plan outlined on Monday by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini held “risks” and was “highly sensitive”.

This phase – “relating to the apprehension and destruction of boats used by traffickers” – would require the authorisation of authorities in Libya, he explained, or the mandate of the UN Security Council – both of which options were “highly unlikely”.

The reason, as explained by the BBC this week, is that Libyan authorities “where central government collapse and the rise of Islamic State militants have caused chaos” have objected to the EU proposals, and Russia particularly is unlikely to sanction a UN military mandate.

According to Machete, China also “has manifested its reservations”.

Set against all the uncertainty is the revelation earlier this week that Islamic State militants posing as asylum seekers may be among migrants flooding into Europe from Libya.

In the chaos that surrounds the daily influx of hundreds, it could be easy to miss them. Indeed, Egypt’s ambassador to the UK has warned of “boats full of terrorists”, so Portugal’s reservations could be interpreted as wise.

According to Diário de Notícias, Machete has suggested the problem should not be one for Europe to deal with on its own. “Other countries” should get involved in a show of “world solidarity”, he told the paper.

As reported by national and international media last week, the EU plan to “spread immigrants” across member states “more equitably” would ‘cost’ around €50 million.

One of the arguments for it has been the fact that employment forecasts envisage a dwindling European workforce by 2060 due to falling birthrates.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]