Migrant Crisis Prompts Longest EU Parliament Debate in Memory

  • EU voter unease over refugee wave shown in marathon session
  • Discussion lasted more than 5 hours and included 137 speakers

Any doubts that the flood of refugees entering the European Union is the main concern of EU voters can be dispelled by a debate this week in the 28-nation bloc’s Parliament.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

The European Parliament, which is a barometer of public opinion across multicultural Europe as well as a legislature, on Tuesday held a debate about Middle Eastern migrants that may have been the longest in the assembly’s 37-year history, according to spokeswoman Marjory van den Broeke. The exchange in Strasbourg, France, lasted five hours and 10 minutes and involved 137 speakers.

“Certainly it was the longest debate that anyone can remember,” Van den Broeke said on Wednesday at the Strasbourg headquarters of the Parliament, which has been directly elected since 1979. “We would need to delve into the archives to confirm. That would take quite a while.”

The EU Parliament’s discussion officially covered four subjects that all relate to the largest European refugee wave since World War II: the future of the so-called Schengen zone of 26 countries allowing passport-free travel; the rights of refugees under international law; funds for Turkey to help it cope with migrants; and racist hatred and violence suffered by the incomers.

Asylum Seekers

While unmentioned on the official agenda, Greece came up frequently during the debate. Still seeking to emerge from the euro-area debt crisis that the country triggered in late 2009, Greece is the main EU entry point for asylum seekers fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn nations and heading to prosperous northern Europe, with thousands arriving daily on Greek islands by sea from Turkey.

More than 60,000 people displaced by violence and unrest in the Middle East and Africa arrived on Europe’s shores last month alone, over 10 times as many as in January 2015, according to the United Nations refugee agency. With the possibility of the influx growing as the weather warms in spring, policy makers in Europe say they have about two months to get a handle on the situation.

Migration jumped to the top of the political agenda across Europe last year because overwhelming numbers of refugees can stoke populist reactions in countries and destabilize national governments, while the Schengen zone has the symbolic power that the euro has when it comes to European integration successes.

A Eurobarometer poll published in December showed immigration had risen to become the most important challenge perceived to be facing the EU -- ahead of terrorism and the economy -- with 58 percent of respondents mentioning the subject.

Any thought that the EU Parliament’s Feb. 2 debate might exhaust talk about the issue for a while evaporated on Wednesday morning, when the refugee challenge came up in the context of an assembly discussion about a planned Feb. 18-19 meeting of European government leaders.

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