David Cameron’s limited promise of only 4,000 places a year for Syrian refugees provides a glimpse of the impotence of Britain’s future role in world affairs outside the EU.
His Commons promise to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years is at the bottom end of expectations. It stands in sharp contrast to the French pledge of 24,000 places over the next two years. As the Labour MP and father of the house, Gerald Kaufman, angrily pointed out: “The Germans took in 10,000 refugees in one day.”
Cameron has deliberately spurned taking part in a much bigger EU scheme to resettle those in the camps in countries neighbouring Syria. He has also rejected playing any part in the expected EU request this week to relocate the estimated 160,000 refugees who have made it across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece or through the Balkans to Hungary.
With more than 4 million Syrians already living in UN camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey it is hard to see how Britain’s own-brand resettlement scheme can make any significant difference to the situation.
It will undoubtedly make a world of difference to the few thousand who are lucky enough to be named each year by a British official as among the most deserving of sanctuary in the UK. But all the signs are that Cameron is set to repeat the same mistakes made when the UK’s vulnerable persons relocation scheme, as it is officially known, was set up in January last year.
In his Commons statement, Cameron made much of how Britain did not need to take part in the EU’s programmes to provide international protection, saying they could only operate within the Schengen border-free zone.
But as Ireland, which also has an exemption from EU asylum programmes, has shown by volunteering to take 1,800 Syrian refugees over the next two years, it is perfectly possible to take part in that coordinated European response if Cameron wanted to.
The UNHCR has called for an end to Europe’s fragmented response to the refugee crisis. France and Germany seem to recognise that a joint European approach is the only way to match the scale of that crisis. In a key test of European solidarity, when Germany is saying it cannot be expected to act alone, Britain has decided once again to sit it out on the sidelines.
As the French president, Francois Hollande, put it on Monday: “It’s true that Britain is not in the Schengen area … but that doesn’t absolve it from making an effort in terms of solidarity,” making clear there would be a price to be paid when Britain in turn demands ‘solidarity’ over reform of the EU.