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EU countries need to curb irregular migration to prevent far-right surge, says Manfred Weber

The next elections to the European Parliament risk unleashing a far-right surge if governments are unable to prove they can manage migration, Manfred Weber has warned.

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“People want to see results. And that means, practically speaking, we have to lower the number of irregular arrivals,” the leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) said on Wednesday morning.

In the first ten months of 2023, the European Union saw nearly 331,000 irregular border crossings, with the Central Mediterranean route accounting for the vast majority of incidents. The figures represent the highest level for that period since 2015.

“The reception centres in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are full. People see the pictures from Lampedusa. That’s the reality on the ground,” Weber went on. “People want to have a state that is solving problems, that is managing things. And until now, we haven’t done so.”

“Sixty per cent of those arriving from the Mediterranean route are not allowed to stay. They have to return. And they don’t go back home,” he added. “On returns, the state is not functioning.”

During a meeting with journalists attended by Euronews, Weber, whose group is the largest formation in the European Parliament, reflected on the recent results of the Dutch elections, which brought about the surprising victory of Geert Wilders and his far-right, anti-Islam PVV party after a campaign dominated by the cost-of-living crisis, the lack of affordable housing and an increase in asylum seekers.

The outcome was interpreted as a harsh rebuke to the centrist parties that have dominated Dutch politics for more than a decade. Although it’s still unclear if Wilders will be able to secure a governing majority and become prime minister, his strong showing has raised fears of a far-right surge in the next European elections, scheduled to take place between 6 and 9 June. 

Opinion polls already show far-right parties enjoying a strong position in countries like France, Germany, Austria and the Flemish region of Belgium while in Portugal and Romania, they have begun an upward trend.

Echoing those fears, Weber called on the European Parliament and member states to wrap up the New Pact on Migration and Asylum before Europeans go to the polls so that governments have something to show to sceptical voters.

The New Pact is a comprehensive reform of the bloc’s common policy that foresees a permanent system of “mandatory solidarity” to ensure the burden is effectively shared between the 27 countries. The overhaul, which comprises five different but interlinked pieces of legislation, is in the final stretch of negotiations.

“We need a solution. If we fail to have a solution on the migration pact, we are risking ending up in a very difficult for the European Union as a whole,” Weber said.

“If we go too far, from a left-wing perspective, then we risk breaking up the deal on the Council side,” he added, referring to the breakthrough agreement that member states struck in the spring after a day of marathon talks in Luxembourg.

“I see politicians who neglect the problem, who don’t see what is happening on the ground.”

The external dimension

Weber’s hardened position on migration has been criticised by the Socialists and Green groups as an attempt to pacify the far-right and mimic its radical agenda under a veneer of centrism. Several parties that belong to the EPP have in recent years entered coalition agreements with far-right formations in order to reach power.

In Italy, the EPP-affiliated Forza Italia is one of the three parties that props up the government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, which has been described as the most hard-right executive in the country’s history.

Earlier this month, Meloni signed a protocol with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to outsource the processing of up to 36,000 asylum applications per year to the Balkan country. The deal is unprecedented and has raised serious questions about the extraterritorial application of EU law and potential human rights violations.

Meloni has defended the protocol as a natural development of the EU’s renewed focus on the “external dimension” of migration, a catch-all term to promote closer cooperation with countries of transit and origin with the ultimate goal of preventing irregular arrivals.

The strong attention to the “external dimension” has caused friction between conservatives and progressives in the European Parliament, with the former energetically supporting the approach and the latter urging caution and solidarity.

“We have to invest in these talks and we have to start these talks from a perspective of listening, not lecturing,” Weber said, name-checking Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt as viable partners.

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So far, the only EU-wide result from the “external dimension” has been the memorandum of understanding with Tunisia, which earmarks more than €700 million in EU funds across five thematic pillars, including financial assistance and border management. (Tunisia is the main gateway for migrants seeking to reach Italian shores.)

Since its signature in July, the memorandum has attracted intense scrutiny from lawmakers, media and humanitarian NGOs due to Tunisia’s dire record on human rights and the racist rhetoric of its president, Kais Saied. The memorandum was plunged into uncertainty in October after President Saied ordered the refund of €60 million in budget support, having dismissed the money as “charity.”

The European Commission insists work is ongoing to implement the five thematic pillars but no further disbursements have been announced.

Weber, however, seemed optimistic and said that, if the bloc delivers on the investment promises made to Tunisia, the country will in turn “help us fight against smugglers.” 

“I know things are not easy but we now have an opportunity to work together with our neighbours,” Weber told journalists.

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“The agreement with Tunisia is the most urgent thing.”


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