Europe News

Europe vs. UK: Battle lines drawn over migrants

Migration and the acceptance of asylum seekers has fast become a battleground between the U.K. and European Union, as relations between the two parties deteriorate just days after a general election.

Tensions were heightened after the U.K.'s center-right Conservative Party was re-elected to government in a general election last week. The party's leader and U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised to hold a referendum on membership of the EU by 2017, making a potential "Brexit" – or British exit from the EU – a sore point in cross-Channel relations.

The governor of the Bank of England said on Thursday that the government should act with "appropriate speed" in holding the referendum, according to the Financial Times newspaper, due to concerns about the business uncertainty that the impending vote could cause. (Tweet This)

On Wednesday, the EU's executive arm unveiled proposals suggesting that some member states – including the U.K. – will have to take in more migrants looking for asylum in Europe.

Migrants wait to disembark from military ship 'Bettica' after a rescue operation at sea on May 5, 2015 in the port of Salerno, southern Italy.
MARIO LAPORTA | AFP | Getty Images

The plans include measures to increase funding and resources for the EU's maritime border-protection operation, Triton, but also "resettlement" and "relocation" measures.

First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, said in a statement Wednesday that by the end of this month a "temporary relocation mechanism" would be proposed, in an effort to relieve the "exceptional pressure" on frontline countries -- such as Greece and Italy -- where migrants from northern Africa and the Middle East tend to arrive.

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"People in need, who have already reached our shores, will be distributed to other member states who will then take care of their reception and asylum processing," Timmermans said.

There are also plans to resettle 20,000 migrants in the EU over the next two years, with quotas set out for each country.

The desperate situation has been thrown into stark relief this year, with several high-profile migrant disasters. A number of boats, crowded with migrants, have capsized and some 1,750 migrants have died in 2015 alone, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Timmermans conceded that the EU's proposals were "challenging" and would "prompt debate and attract criticism," but stressed: "It is not acceptable for people around the EU to say, 'yes, stop people dying in the Mediterranean' and at the same time remain silent when the question is raised of what should happen to these people once they were saved."

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British Intelligence

The U.K. reacted quickly to the EU proposals, with Home Secretary, Theresa May, writing in The Times newspaper that the country, "must—and will—resist calls for the mandatory relocation or resettlement of migrants across Europe."

Immigration is a hot topic in the U.K. and remains high on the list of concerns for many voters. In the general election last week, for instance, the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) garnered 3.9 million votes.

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This opposition to taking in more migrants was rebuffed by Europe, however, with Timmermans responding to May's comments Wednesday.

"I have the highest regard for British intelligence, but I am not sure Theresa May has read all the plans we've made," he said, The Telegraph reported.

Under pressure from voters and more euroskeptic members of his party, Prime Minister David Cameron is believed to be preparing to hold a referendum on EU membership next year, earlier than previously thought.

Burden sharing

The measures proposed by the Commission come as Europe faces a growing migrant crisis, with thousands of people, mainly from northern Africa or the conflict-ridden Middle East, attempting to cross the Mediterranean and reach European shores in hopes of a better life.

Italy and Greece tend to bear the burden of rescuing and sheltering rescued migrants, but both countries are already struggling economically and have asked for more help from their European counterparts.

The top five EU countries to receive asylum applications are Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and the U.K., according to data from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). There were 570,800 asylum claims in 2014 in the EU -- an increase of 44 percent on the year before.

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But tensions are high within Europe over how many asylum applications each country approves.

Germany granted the highest number of people -- 48,000 -- asylum last year, followed by France and Italy (both 21,000) and the United Kingdom (14,000), according to European statistics agency Eurostat.

Hungary, however, only approved 550 asylum seekers applications in 2014, and Portugal granted only 40.

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld