Migration is back as Europe’s most consequential and controversial battleground. This was made clear by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit this weekend alongside Italian PM Giorgia Meloni to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which finds itself once again at the centre of the maelstrom.
More than 12,000 people have reached Italy in the past week, mostly to Lampedusa, with thousands more waiting to make the relatively short journey from Tunisia’s port city of Sfax to the island famed for its delicious red prawns and stunning beaches.
The situation is at a breaking point with sanitary conditions on the island deteriorating fast.
Authorities have struggled to ship the new arrivals off the island to Sicily and other parts of Italy amid concerns about Lampedusa’s overcrowded migrants’ reception facility which was designed to accommodate just 400 people. The local population of Lampedusa is 6,000.
Sadly, however, this immensely complex topic does not look like it will be solved anytime soon, for four interrelated reasons.
First, the oft-vaunted “European solidarity” is scarcer than ever on this politically toxic topic.
There is simply no consensus across the bloc on how to make comprehensive revisions to the current “Dublin Regulation”, which states that the first Member State where an asylum claim is lodged is responsible for that person’s claim.
The system thereby in effect makes EU-wide immigration a problem only for those countries like Spain, France, Italy and Greece that just happen to be on the front line.
In the last instance of talks breaking down, Poland and Hungary vetoed a proposal on migration policy review at the European Council in June.
Even the European right is in disarray on this topic, with right-wing Meloni ironically kiboshed by her supposed allies in Poland and Hungary.
Second, the tactic used to stem the flows – effectively, paying a bunch of dubious autocrats on Europe’s borders to harbour the vast number of illegal migrants in increasingly squalid conditions – is clearly neither morally defensible nor effective.
As Kim Ghattas, the author of Black Wave, has written, “Europe is helping to entrench Arab autocrats by asking them to stem the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean, with no regard for their governance or human rights record. They, in turn, are only too happy to pose as partners, claiming they alone can protect Europe’s southern border from illegal migrants, in exchange for more cash.”
Perversely, it is, in fact, often those autocratic and repressive leaders who are driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and causing them to make the treacherous trip to Europe in the first place.
Most recently, Tunisian despot Kais Saied has been the biggest net beneficiary, last month signing a strategic partnership deal with the EU worth hundreds of millions of euros.
This is just the most recent example of such bipartisan dealmaking on the topic of migration.
Meloni has brokered a similar deal with Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar; French President Emmanuel Macron bestowed Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with the Legion d’Honneur; while Angela Merkel famously brokered numerous such deals with Turkish ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
However, with the number of arrivals in Lampedusa and elsewhere soaring, clearly this strategy is not working.
Third, the long-term plan looks completely unrealistic. Meloni has repeatedly stated she believes in the long-term potential of Africa, saying on Fox News: “Africa is not a poor continent; it is a continent that has many resources. Africa today is a victim of systems which make it unstable.”
She has spoken regularly about the so-called Mattei Plan for African Development, named after the founder of energy multinational, Eni. This is meant to be a blueprint in which Europe partners with Africa by investing in green energy and hydrogen, making everyone better off. Staying rather than immigrating theoretically therefore becomes more enticing.
Sadly, however, for Europe, the current reality of their relations with African states could not be further from this naïve green-tinted vision.
With the recent coups in Niger and Gabon, the EU has lost two more of its allies in the form of Ali Bongo Ondimba and Mohamed Bazoum. Now the entire Sahel region is practically in anarchy, creating an ever more precarious environment from which millions are desperate to escape.
Fourth, and perhaps most critical of all, with the effects of climate change only just beginning, the situation will almost certainly become immeasurably worse.
The wildfires in Algeria, floods in Libya and near 50°C temperatures across the region this summer are all a harbinger of things to come. The current flow of people may well turn into a flood of millions escaping future cataclysms.
Finally, this is, above all, a humanitarian catastrophe.
Wishing it all away through deals with dubious neighbours will not improve the appalling conditions that millions are enduring, right on Europe’s fringes.
Many of Europe’s far-right rulers, Meloni and Viktor Orban included, are found regularly flaunting their Christian beliefs, often stating how important Christianity and the traditional family are for European identity.
Perhaps they could start by sounding and acting more compassionately on the dreadful plight of the thousands of stranded Africans on Europe’s shores.
Once again, it seems that the lofty values of the European project only apply to citizens who look and sound like most Europeans. DM