Unhappy days for the EU, the Mediterranean and Africa

When EU leaders meet in Brussels, the reality of the Italian government stance will hit home.
Sunday 24/06/2018
Tougher line. (L-R) Italian, Austrian and German police officers stand together during a tri-national border routine check, on June 15. ( Reuters)
Tougher line. (L-R) Italian, Austrian and German police officers stand together during a tri-national border routine check, on June 15. ( Reuters)

Tensions in Europe about the influx of immigrants and refugees are rising again and sending shockwaves through the politics of the continent.

With a populist and openly Eurosceptic government in Italy recently installed, there is now a risk of bringing down the coalition of Socialist and CDU-CSU conservative parties in Germany as the Bavarian CSU wing of the right panders to the right-wing nationalist and overtly racist Alternative for Germany, which entered the Bundestag last autumn and has put the conservatives under intense pressure to tighten immigration laws.

A blazing row between Italy and France, sparked by Italian reaction to what the country’s leaders view as moral lecturing from French President Emmanuel Macron, was patched up when the Italian prime minister visited Macron. France has done virtually nothing to help Italy by opening its doors to African refugees. But nerves between the two countries remain raw.

The new Spanish Socialist government agreed to let the Aquarius, a rescue ship carrying 629 migrants, which had been refused entry into Malta and Italian ports, dock in Valencia. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said this was a “symbolic act” to impel more coordinated action from a continent engaged in “ostrich politics.”

The Spanish gesture might prompt a desperately needed rethink. The advent of a new minority Socialist government in Spain suggests that not all European countries are drifting towards right-wing populist action. Macron has said France would accept those migrants from the Aquarius who wanted to settle in his country. Not all is lost as yet.

Europe will do all it can to keep the millions of refugees from the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Serbia. Some of its conservative politicians would like to entice North African countries to act as the gatekeepers of Africa, oblivious of the fact that the three central Maghreb countries host an estimated 260,000 migrants from sub-Saharan countries, a figure seasoned observers say is very conservative.

It is ironic that tensions have flared when the scale of migration has declined: Numbers are sharply down from their 2015-16 peak because of an EU deal with Turkey, border fences in the Balkans and a deal between Italy and Libya, represented all too often by Libyan Coast Guard or militias, which treat sub-Saharans abominably.

UN agencies say European Union aid money is flowing to some of the most repressive and dictatorial regimes in Africa, such as Sudan, whose abuses are driving the exodus of people trying to escape dangerous and desperate conditions in the first place.

The UNHCR said Italy has seen 15,500 irregular migrants this year, Spain 15,000 and Greece 12,500. However, “the underlying factors that have led to more than 1.8 million migrants coming to Europe since 2014 have not gone away,” wrote Jon Henley for the Guardian, with many observers saying “it is only a matter of time before the number of arrivals picks up again.”

“Everyone agrees Europe needs to urgently overhaul its asylum and immigration rules. At present Italy and Greece take most of the strain because of their geographical position and the fact that, under EU law, asylum seekers must lodge their applications in the first EU country they enter,” wrote Henley.

No one in Europe has been able to agree on how to do it and the wider political context has become poisonous. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the League political party, wants to carry out a census of Roma in Italy and expel those who hold foreign nationality — an openly fascist discourse. He campaigned on a pledge to send 500,000 irregular migrants home.

Marco Damilano, editor of the Italian weekly l’Espresso, noted that Salvini is “an agent of the crisis that follows (US President Donald) Trump’s view of questioning the international order…. Migration is perfect from his point of view; it’s where Europe is more fragile.”

Salvini is all the more formidable because he is far more powerful than his nominal boss, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, or the leader of his Five Star Movement coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio. It is he who gave the order to block Italy’s ports to the Aquarius. Conte was belatedly “informed” of the decision when he landed in Canada for the recent G7 meeting.

If Rome puts forward a proposal to reinforce external border controls, along with Vienna and possibly Berlin, which might include a suggestion to open centres in Africa for asylum seekers, those who know their history will be reminded of the alliance those capitals forged in the late 1930s.

These are very unhappy days for Europe, for the Mediterranean and for Africa as the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, will find it almost impossible to find a compromise ahead of the EU summit.

When EU leaders meet in Brussels, the reality of the Italian government stance will hit home. Major European powers no longer have to contend to contain the manoeuvres of the awkward squad (Hungary and Poland) but will have to face Salvini and the two ministers of the interior he has made common cause with, Horst Seehofer, head of Germany’s Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) and Austria’s far-right Herbert Kickl.