‘Not our problem’ is not exactly an answer...

Does the Commission seriously expect Malta (with its grand total of 10 patrol boats) and Italy (currently grappling with a plague of quasi-Biblical proportions) to secure the entire southern frontier of the EU… singlehandedly?

Earlier this week, it was reported that Opposition leader Adrian Delia held a ‘teleconference’ with European Commissioner for Immigration Ylva Johansson, on the subject of… well, her own Commission portfolio, as it happens. (For though the Commission now argues that ‘immigration’ is not its within its own remit… sorry, but it is. And there is a mountain of evidence to prove it.)

But one step at a time. From the news report, it seems that Delia must have done an awful lot of talking in that conference: so much so, that the media only reported what he told the European Commissioner… and not (as one would also justifiably expect) what she said to him in reply.

For instance: Delia reportedly told Johansson “that Maltese reception centres for asylum seekers were overcrowded and that the country’s resources were under pressure”; and asked her “to enforce a mandatory distribution of asylum seekers among European member states, as well as to immediately repatriate failed asylum claimants.”

And… erm… that’s it, really. There was no indication of how the Immigration Commissioner actually responded to Delia’s demands - beyond a very vague allusion (coming once again from Delia himself, and not from any official EU source) that “Johansson had committed to insist for [sic] an immediate establishment of a redistribution process, at European level.”

Mind you, there could be entirely practical reasons for this. From my own experience, I can confirm that it is actually quite difficult to get a word in edgeways, once Adrian Delia gets on a roll (seriously, though: that guy can talk the ears off a donkey…).

But in this particular scenario – i.e., a full-blown humanitarian crisis on the EU’s southern border, in which up to 12 people have already died – such difficulties can hardly be used as an excuse for the Commission to simply avoid discussing the problem altogether.

After all, European citizens are entitled to an official explanation of what the European Commission itself intends to do about this crisis… as opposed to what people like Adrian Delia think it should be doing (which, in reality, is just a wish-list: no more, no less).

Nor does it help much that, under scrutiny, Delia’s ‘wish-list’ turns out to be just an umpteenth repetition of the same official demands made by successive governments of Malta (and also Italy) for the past 15 years at least. That’s how long Malta has been crying out for a ‘mandatory distribution of asylum seekers among European member states’; and that, too, is how long our appeals have been falling on deaf ears in Brussels.

But in any case: neither ‘burden sharing’ nor ‘repatriation’ has any real relevance to the immediate crisis at hand… which is actually caused by our collective failure to agree upon whose responsibility it is to rescue those people to begin with.

It is this disagreement – and not the other one about ‘burden sharing’ - that has resulted in all those people stranded on the open sea for days; so as far as I can see, any talk of what happens to them after they’ve been rescued is neither here nor there… given that, as things stand, nobody seems willing to actually go out and rescue them anyway.

So I, for one, am very curious to hear what Ylva Johansson – as opposed to Adrian Delia – would have to say about the matter:  for she, and no one else, is the ‘European Commissioner for Home Affairs’  (including immigration); and it cannot be that the one person who is supposedly responsible for the issue at European Union level, is also the one person whose voice we quite simply never hear at all.

Well… almost never. For this week, The Times also reported that “The European Commission has said it is up to Malta and Italy to find a solution for who will take in migrants stuck out at sea”; and that, as such, “it would not weigh in on the disembarkation of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.”

To date, this solitary statement is the closest thing I have seen to any formal pronouncement by the European Commission about the ongoing crisis: and it happens to chime in with the Commission’s attitude towards pretty much every other crisis or problem it is occasionally called on to deal with from time to time.

‘Not our problem’. It seems that, whenever things go wrong… it is never the fault of the European Commission (for, say, not doing its job properly); but by a remarkable coincidence, it always turns out to be the sole responsibility of the individual member states concerned.

How terribly convenient, I must say. Unfortunately for Mrs Johansson, however… in this particular case, it is also highly questionable, to say the least.

Let’s take a quick look at what the European Commission’s responsibilities actually are, shall we? On its own website – under the section ‘A fresh start on migration’ (if you please) – there is a rather clear list of objectives, including:

“Developing a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, strengthening external borders, reforming asylum, readmission and return rules, promoting integration and ensuring real legal pathways to the EU […]”;

“Developing a more sustainable, reliable and permanent approach to search and rescue”, and; 

“Implementing a reinforced European Border and Coast Guard Agency, to help secure strong external borders.”

(Note: there are others, but they are not directly concerned with search and rescue, and therefore not really relevant at this stage).

Now let’s take them one by one. The first (‘Developing a New Pact on Migration and Asylum’) is effectively what Adrian Delia… and Robert Abela... and Joseph Muscat... and Lawrence Gonzi, etc… have all been insisting on since around 2005, if not earlier. And the cardinal point concerns ‘reforming asylum, readmission and return rules’: in other words, updating the Dublin 2 agreement of 2003.

Clearly, then, by its own admission the European Commission is already committed (on paper) to revise the rules governing rescue at sea… with particular emphasis on the thorny question of where people should be disembarked after being rescued. And while Johansson herself has admittedly only been Commissioner since last July, it is not unreasonable to ask what, if anything, the new Commission has actually done about it since then.

To put that another way: we can all see with our own eyes that the Commission has failed in that objective… but how hard did it even try? And is it in the Commission’s own interest to even try at all?

Ah, there’s the rub. Much as I hate to say it, the answer appears to be ‘no’. It is clearly not in the interest of the European Commission to revise a treaty which saddles individual member states with all the responsibility for search and rescue - and, even more so, where those people disembark, and consequently where their asylum applications get processed - while allowing the Commission itself to keep getting away with doing virtually nothing at all.

But it is point number two – ‘developing a more sustainable, reliable and permanent approach to search and rescue’ – where the Commission’s failures become most evident. This is, in fact, the entire crux of the matter. Very clearly, the Commission has NOT developed any new approach to search and rescue: for, as already explained, the actual rules of engagement have not changed in any detail since 2003… unlike the nature of the crisis that those rules were originally devised to cater for: which (as you surely don’t need me to tell you) have changed beyond recognition over the intervening 17 years.

And this, I fear, is the real dynamic underpinning the Commission’s statement this week: i.e., that it is ‘up to Malta and Italy to find a solution for who will take in migrants stuck out at sea’. All along, it was the Commission’s job to change that scenario… but it failed to do so; and now, instead of sticking to the plan regardless, and at least trying to achieve those objectives anyway… it has effectively thrown in the towel altogether, thus cementing the status quo.

We now have it, directly from the Commission’s own mouth, that… ‘sorry, folks but you’re on your own’. And this inevitably raises questions about other aspects of the same Commission’s objectives: including the one about ‘strengthening Europe’s borders’.

Is that also the sole responsibility of the border states, might I ask? Does the Commission seriously expect Malta (with its grand total of 10 patrol boats) and Italy (currently grappling with a plague of quasi-Biblical proportions) to secure the entire southern frontier of the EU… single-handedly? At a time when Libya is plunged into civil war, and a large-scale humanitarian crisis is now more or less unavoidable…?

If so – and it certainly looks that way, at the moment – then it would only be natural for the same two countries to question whether the EU still even exists at all… not to mention whether there is any point in remaining members.

By all accounts, Italy is already asking itself that very question; and it is probably just a matter of time before the same disillusionment sets in just as deeply here.

And whose responsibility will that be, I wonder? Hmm…