With thousands from Africa and the Middle East continuing to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, Europe's response to the crisis seemingly comes down to two choices: Stanch the flow, or accept and resettle the migrants. Now, however, it seems European leaders are considering a combination of both options.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly wants to implement a quota system that would ship migrants around the continent, relieving Italy and other frontline countries from shouldering the lion's share of the burden. French daily Le Figaro obtained a "working document" that outlines a proposed "distribution mechanism" for non-EU migrants.
At the same time, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini addressed the UN Security Council on Monday, arguing for a military plan to dismantle the smuggling networks that are profiting from the unrest in Libya. The EU's top priority, Mogherini said, was to "save lives and prevent further loss of lives at sea." Mogherini said the EU would triple its financial support of the Triton and Poseidon border security operations.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 1,829 people have died crossing the Mediterranean so far in 2015, with most fleeing poverty and conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and other areas across North Africa and the Middle East.
"2015 looks even worse than the previous year," Mogherini said. "The EU is finally ready to take its own responsibility: saving lives, welcoming refugees, addressing the root cause of the phenomenon, dismantling criminal organizations."
European Council members Britain, France, Lithuania, and Spain are working to draft a resolution that would authorize the EU to employ military force to stymie Libya-based traffickers. Council diplomats said last week the plan would allow the EU to intervene in international and Libyan territorial waters, as well as on the country's shoreline. Libya's UN ambassador questioned the EU plan, saying his government had not endorsed the effort.
Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin has also expressed skepticism, saying last week that the discussed resolution is "just going too far." Russia, a critic of NATO's 2011 intervention in Libya, holds veto power as one of the Council's five permanent members.
'I have had enough of poetry. I find the rhetoric of concern attractive at first but not all the time.'
Speaking to reporters after briefing the Council, Mogherini played down those concerns, saying she had not encountered "any opposition" in her discussions with its members, including Russia.
Asked about European forces potentially bombing boats used by smugglers, Mogherini said the operation would not involve air power, but did not rule out the possibility of naval force being used.
According to the "working document" cited by Le Figaro, the proposed quota system would use GDP, population, unemployment rate, the number of asylum seekers already being processed, and other criteria to decide where migrants will be sent in the EU. It's unclear if the quotas will fix a minimum and maximum number of migrants per country, or whether a country will be assigned a proportional share of the migration flow. It also remains to be seen whether the quotas will apply to refugees, who have a different legal status than other migrants.
The quota system is not a new idea. On April 29, 10 days after a boat carrying at least 700 migrants capsized off the coast of Libya, European lawmakers adopted a resolution to develop a common migration policy. The non-binding resolution included the provision to establish quotas to evenly distribute migrants among the member states.
In April, Juncker applauded a move by EU countries to triple the funding for the Triton search and rescue operation, but maintained that the overall level of response was "inadequate" to prevent migrant deaths.
"What we need is shared solidarity," Juncker told the EU parliament on April 29. "To be honest, I have had enough of poetry. I find the rhetoric of concern attractive at first but not all the time." He added that Europe needed to open its doors to "stop people coming in through the windows."
Several countries, including Germany and France, have already voiced their support of the idea, and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told French radio network RTL that France already made a similar suggestion back in August.
Other European countries might be reluctant to endorse a quota system. Alice Mesnard, an economist at City University London, told VICE News the proposal would be "more favorably received by Italy and Europe's southernmost nations, who receive more migrants than, say, the UK."
"Europe's migration policy is poorly coordinated," Mesnard said. "Even if they [EU member states] can agree on the question of refugees, there is still the question of all the other migrants who have come over for economic, familial, or other reasons."
While April's tragedy off the coast of Libya may have heightened awareness among the European public about the plight of migrants, Mesnard said each country has a different political stance on immigration. "Those promoting an anti-immigration and anti-European rhetoric are going to use this new supranational measure on immigration as an argument in their favor," Mesnard said.
In a statement released Monday, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front (FN) party, lambasted a European Commission official for saying immigration is "key to growth."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also called the idea to distribute migrants across the EU "mad and unfair" on public radio last week. "This is not the time for solidarity but to enforce the law," Orban said. "Illegal immigration is an offense."
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin
Additional reporting by Samuel Oakford