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The Good Info Project

What led to the 2019 Fine Gael MEP migration vote?

In October 2019, 290 MEPs voted against resuming search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean. Four were Fine Gael MEPs. What was behind that vote?

TWO YEARS AGO this month, on Thursday 24 October 2019, the European Parliament voted on whether to resume search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean after they were controversially wound up by the EU earlier that year.

It was a non-binding motion, with no costs or legislation attached to it, but its proponents hoped it would put pressure on the European Commission and the European Council to do more to help migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean.

The day before the vote, and on the same day the European Parliament debated the resolution, 39 Vietnamese people were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex, southeast England – something that MEPs later suggested emotionally charged the debate on Europe’s search and rescue missions.

After the resolution was defeated, the European Parliament was lambasted for voting down the resolution – to this day, MEPs who voted against it are still criticised for ‘voting to let migrant children drown in the Mediterranean’.

As part of The Good Information Project on migration and the EU, we took a look at the vote, how it happened and what it could mean for how the EU handles future search and rescue debates.

The context to the vote

At the time, Europe had been grappling with a political crisis over what to do about soaring numbers of migrants fleeing from the Middle East and the African continent. 

There were 1,078 people recorded to have drowned in the Mediterranean in 2019, according to the Missing Migrants Project, which tracks the deaths of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have gone missing along mixed migration routes worldwide.

Now, the European Parliament was about to hold a vote on how it should respond to migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean.

Screenshot 2021-10-06 18.26.10 European Parliament Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar European Parliament

Spain’s MEP Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, was the rapporteur of the report that the motion was based on. During the European Parliament debate, held the day before the vote, he told the Parliament:

“It is not the case that we ritually deplore this tragedy – it is about time that we change and call on the Commission and the Council for real action on the matter and this the aim of this concise resolution.”

The way the EU institutions interact with one another is complicated. The Parliament cannot propose legislation – it must come from the European Commission. The European Commission works with the European Council – the 27 EU leaders – to make sure the proposals are palatable at a national level, since that is where they will be implemented.

The European Parliament’s job is to tweak those proposals as much as possible in the interests of EU citizens. This means trying to navigate between the Council and the Parliament in order to find a compromise, which all three institutions can only live with, but will also work in practice. 

But resolutions in the European Parliament, as with motions in Dáil Éireann in relation to the Government of the day, can put pressure on the European Commission to take a certain type of action, or to act faster.

The result of the vote

Most will know the outcome of the 2019 European Parliament vote on search and rescue missions: the resolution was defeated by two votes, with 290 against to 288 in favour.

Lopez Aguilar said in response: “Mr President, [this] is a day in which we once again mourn the tragic death of thirty-nine human beings, victims of the networks and the mafias that traffic in people.

“We regret the deaths that occur in road traffic, we regret the deaths that occur in the Sahara and we regret the deaths that occur at sea. But we also regret that, by two votes, it has not been possible to express a message of solidarity, not only with those who lose their lives at sea, but with the Member States of the European Union, so that there is a European mechanism for saving lives in the sea. I’m so sorry, Mr President.”

The EPP, the largest political grouping in the parliament, voted against an amendment to the resolution – which was one of four ‘key votes’ – that meant the whole motion was defeated.

Four MEPs – Fine Gael’s Mairéad McGuinness, Frances Fitzgerald, Seán Kelly, and María Walsh – voted to reject the motion; Fine Gael is part of the EU party grouping the EPP, and would have voted with their party colleagues.

The vote result was met with criticism from members of the public, and opposition TDs and MEPs almost instantly.

Two other Irish MEPs, Independents4Change MEP Clare Daly and Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher, didn’t vote on the motion – they had left to catch flights out of Strasbourg.

Their phones began to ping as people began to react online to the result of the vote.

Some members of the political group Fianna Fáil is a member of – the Renew group – also voted against the proposal, which caused surprise to some in the EPP.

All other Irish MEPs – Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy, Independents4Change MEP Mick Wallace, independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, and Greens Grace O’Sullivan and Ciaran Cuffe – voted for the motion. 

Twitter erupted in anger. The Fine Gael MEPs were accused of voting in favour of letting children drown in the Mediterranean. The anger has remained: tweets from the past month indicate that they are still regularly accused of this.

“Please REMEMBER how Irish FG MEPs scuppered EU plan for refugee rescue It was one of the rare times the European Parliament ended up in the headlines, was a huge topic of conversation on Twitter, and it was for the wrong reasons… THEY LIED and men, women, children and babies drowned,” a tweet from 6 October read.

“Voting to let migrants drown in the Mediterranean doesn’t scream ‘put people first’ either,” another tweet from 3 October reads, in response to a request to ‘put people first’ in relation to rising energy costs.

On 16 August, a tweet from Sean Kelly about the Dublin GAA team received a response “about that time, recently, that you voted to allow migrant children drown in the Mediterranean”.

The reasons given for voting against it

After the vote, MEP María Walsh went on Morning Ireland and said that the “report had a number of red flags to it”, including an amendment to share information among all vessels in the Mediterranean. 

“One voted down was amendment 59, proposed by SND and Greens, and it wanted information shared to all vessels: NGOs, Frontex, member states,” she said. 

“There is a serious issue with human trafficking, but sharing information [about the] most vulnerable is not the way to do it. I can’t stand over that, the EPP can’t stand over that.”

Screenshot 2021-10-06 19.32.20 European Parliament European Parliament

The amendment in question called on “all actors in the Mediterranean to proactively transmit information related to persons in distress at sea to the competent authorities for search and rescue operations and to, where appropriate, any potential vessels in the vicinity that could imminently engage in search and rescue“.

The part in bold was what the EPP and Fine Gael MEPs had an issue with – “any potential vessels in the vicinity” could mean NGO ships, but could also mean smuggler vessels.

The Irish Times quoted Kelly at the time saying “We were told if we supported this it would mean the sharing of information what would put the security of search and rescue at risk and play into the hands of people smugglers”.

Walsh said after the vote: “This report was loose in language, it was not legally binding, it was not looking for support from member states, it was putting NGOs that do amazing work most at risk, and we were looking at an increase in smuggling and trafficking. Any report that has any grey area on the increase in trafficking, we cannot support.”

Other members of the EPP, however, gave other reasons for voting against the resolution. A Hungarian member of the EPP, Balazs Hidveghi, said that the resolution would be “a clear letter of invitation to millions of people in Africa”.

Walsh said that co-ordinator for the EPP Roberta Metsola and shadow rapporteur Lena Düpont, an MEP from Germany, “were disappointed” as soon as the vote was cast and the result was shared – particularly after far-right MEPs cheered at the result, casting a particular slant over the vote. 

Speaking to The Journal this week, Lena Düpont said that it was a highly emotional and sensitive political debate. 

“It was a bit sad to see the reaction of the right side of the house, because we were having a factual debate on a very important and very sensitive issue – it doesn’t mean that you can cheer when the vote is lost.”

She said that the key factor in the result of the vote wasn’t the content of the motion, but the relatively new European Parliament after the elections in May 2019. With around 60% of the Parliament made up of new members, and the membership of the Parliament described as quite ‘fractured’ at the time, it wasn’t easy to predict how votes would go.

“I think what played a major role here in this regard was not the content [of the resolution] itself, but more the first test of majorities in the House – it was one of the first votes of the term.”

There were clear understandings of how certain votes would go in the previous parliament make-up – but with around 400 new MEPs out of a total of 750 parliamentarians, the result was more “reshuffled and mixed”. 

The parameters about how a majority could be won in the House had changed. 

How voting in the European Parliament works

The vote on a non-binding agreement was not expected to be a major one – Seán Kelly tweeted out a picture of a burger after the vote as he waited for his flight at the airport.

During voting sessions in the Parliament, MEPs regularly vote on motions and amendments to those motions every three seconds for up to an hour at a time – using a ‘running order’ type list to see what motion is up next.

If they make a mistake, they can amend their vote later.  

The way the voting worked, the primary motion was on the EU’s resumption of search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean. Amendments were tabled, and were voted on on 24 October.

Due to the wording of the legislation, if one of the four ‘key vote’ amendments failed, the whole motion failed. 

Fine Gael MEPs have said that they voted against the motion on sharing data with all boats in the Mediterranean because they did not believe that sharing data was good enough – its been suggested that if the motion was legally binding, and would have resulted in EU search and rescue missions resuming, then they may have voted differently.

One MEP was told that the motion had been passed on from the previous European Parliamentary mandate, and may have been long-fingered on purpose in the knowledge that it was contentious. 

It’s also been suggested that the closeness of the vote – defeated by just two votes out of 750 parliamentarians in the more-liberal of the EU’s institutions, the European Parliament – hints at genuine concerns with the wording of the motion’s amendments.

But it’s also worth noting that another opportunity to vote on whether to resume search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean has not taken place since then – and that charity boats and the Libyan coastguard are now the only operators rescuing migrants in distress in the Mediterranean.

Looking back

In response to queries from The Journal, a statement from the Fine Gael MEPs said: “Last year the Fine Gael Delegation tabled amendments across their committees to protect asylum seekers from trafficking and organised crime networks, particularly through the creation of more legal and safe pathways to the EU, and called for the evacuation of unaccompanied minors from Moria.

“MEP Maria Walsh (Fine Gael representative on the LIBE Committee) consistently tables important humanitarian amendments to Parliament reports on the need for better reception facilities at EU borders with appropriate mental and physical health services, translation services, education provision and protection for vulnerable migrants including LGBTI+ people, women and children, and unaccompanied minors.”

Mairéad McGuinness, who was an MEP and is now an EU Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union, told RTÉ News at the time that it was about “the content and not the objective” of the resolution.

“A lot of people are just reading what is on social media without looking at the facts of the situation. I will not allow anyone challenge my ethics morality around saving lives. It is for political gain,” she said.

When Düpont is asked whether the public outrage that erupted after the vote showed how much EU citizens care about the issue, she says without pausing “of course it is”. 

“It’s not like the Parliament have stopped doing anything on the topic of asylum and migration since then, it was only a resolution with a non-binding character, so it doesn’t change anything.”

After the vote, the Parliament went back to the files from the package that the resolution was based on, and began work on it again, she says. 

“To me it’s a humanitarian issue,” Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews told The Journal. “I strongly believe that you can’t examine the moral hazard argument. It’s a first-responder life-or-death question, and if there are secondary consequences they are negligible in contrast to the primary responsibility to save life.

“Mothers and fathers don’t put their children on leaky boats because they want a better life – they do it because they’re fleeing for their life. I think the EU should tailor its policy in relation to that.” 

Fiona Finn, CEO of Nasc, said that the vote was “absolutely critical”, and that the European Parliament voted against continuing search and rescue missions was “absolutely disgraceful”. 

“That was one kind of chink of hope we had really that the search and rescue missions would be reactivated, and they haven’t. The MEPs gave a spurious reason around data sharing as their rationale for doing it.”

“Irish people were really proud of the Irish Navy’s part in search and rescue missions, they did an absolutely fantastic job and people were very supportive and very proud of that. And then all of a sudden you know you have four Fine Gael MEPs essentially voting to put an end to search and rescue.

“It’s going to cost, and has cost, thousands of lives. People continue to die and end up in a watery grave in the Mediterranean.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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