Caught between the Devil and Dublin 2…

Men, women and children are just left to dangle out at sea caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea… because a bunch of supposedly ‘advanced’ democracies, are not advanced enough to even see the need for any permanent policy for this kind of situation

It should seem scarcely credible, but it doesn’t. A group of 121 people has been left stranded out at sea since August 2 (that’s eleven of the hottest days of the year, and counting)… because a bunch of European countries that seem to think of themselves as the pinnacle of human civilization, can’t even get together and agree on one, simple little thing.

A common immigration policy: which, in practice, requires a reform of the Dublin 2 Convention.

I mean… what sort of lousy excuse is that, anyway, to just leave all those people cooped up in a floating tin can, somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, at the peak of an August heatwave… at risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion, malnutrition, disease… possibly even suicide?

It would be mind-boggling enough even if this were a one-off case. But as we all know, the Open Arms incident is merely a re-enactment of at least four analogous cases that happened in the last three years alone: two involving Sea Watch, and another two boats, the Sea-Eye’s ‘Alan Kurdi’ and SOS-Méditeranée’s ‘Aquarius’.

The details may occasionally vary, but the pattern is always the same: NGO rescue ship picks up X amount of migrants at sea; as per Dublin 2, ship heads to the nearest ‘safe port of call’ (usually Lampedusa, but sometimes Malta); port authorities deny permission for ship to dock; stand-off ensues between different countries arguing over each other’s ‘jurisdictional responsibilities’… so all the rescued migrants (not to mention the rest of the crew) end up stuck at sea for weeks, while governments bicker about where they should disembark, and whose responsibility it was to save them in the first place.

In the case of Open Arms, we can’t talk of any ‘solution’ yet, because the impasse has so far not been broken… well into the second week of the ordeal.

But those other stand-off situations? Without exception, they were eventually all ‘resolved’ the same way: i.e., through bilateral agreements – negotiated mostly by Malta – between the governments of individual EU member states… for all the world as if the EU didn’t even exist at all. (As indeed it never seems to, when the item of the agenda happens to be ‘immigration’. If we were talking about money-laundering, on the other hand… ooh, la, la…)

No prizes, then, for correctly guessing how the Open Arms affair will pan out in the end. It will take another ‘ad hoc’ agreement between sovereign nation states… and certainly not any ‘reform of Dublin 2’.

And all along, X amount of men, women and children are just left to dangle out there, caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea… because a bunch of supposedly ‘advanced’ democracies, are not advanced enough to even see the need for any permanent policy for this kind of situation.

No, not even when it just keeps recurring, year in, year out, relentlessly… as sure as the turning of the Earth.

I don’t know. Maybe we should all take the hint, and simply redefine our understanding of ‘civilised’ and ‘advanced’ accordingly. The European Union cannot expect to be described as either, if it fails to even acknowledge the existence of the problem (still less try to solve it). And – more to the point – neither can it aspire to supplant the sovereignty of those nation states that are, in fact, trying coping with the problem as best they can.

All this talk of a federalised EU must be re-examined through this same prism. We don’t rely on the EU to resolve what is, after all, a European issue (for let’s face it: all those X amount of people left Africa with only one destination in mind: not Malta, not Italy, not Spain, not Greece… but Europe.)

No, we still rely on individual countries to forge ad hoc agreements between themselves: just like we always used to do in the past… you know, the days before we actually joined the European Union in 2004.

For all the difference it has made to this one issue, alone – immigration – ‘EU accession’ may as well have never happened at all. So you can just imagine how much more would get done about immigration, if we replaced national states with a single, centralized European superpower instead.

Yet what are we all still talking about, in the middle of yet another rescued migrant crisis? Why, the need for the EU to finally get its act together, of course. To do what it has repeatedly told us, to our faces, in no uncertain terms, that is has absolutely no intention of ever doing, not in a million years…

We are still talking about a reform of the Dublin 2 convention, that’s what. It has almost become a mantra in itself, like an additional litany to the Rosary:

‘The EU must do more!’… Ora pro nobis. ‘The EU cannot ignore!’… Ora pro nobis. ‘We must reform EU law…!’ Ora pro nobis. Etc., etc., Amen.

How many times have we heard that line from both Labour and Nationalist Parties, through the mouths of all six of Malta’s representatives to the European Parliament? (It remains arguably the only policy issue those two have ever actually agreed upon in their entire history).

But it’s not just parties and politics: how many times has the same mantra been echoed by national and international institutions, human rights NGOs, authorities and regulatory bodies, etc., in recent years?

In brief: how many times have we all collectively complained about the EU’s inaction over immigration, ever we since we joined in 2004?

It’s a very easy question to answer, you know: ‘Exactly as many times as the European Union has simply looked the other way.’

The latest to discover this harsh reality was David Maria Sassoli, President of the European Parliament. On August 8 – that’s five days ago – he wrote to outgoing Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker:

“As has happened repeatedly since the decision was taken to ignore the European Parliament's call for the overhaul of the Dublin Regulation, the fate of wretched people rescued at sea is being exploited for political purposes by governments and is the subject of disagreements between them. Every time a vessel reaches European waters, the same scene is repeated and the same rhetoric is spouted. The latest case involves the Open Arms, a boat with 121 people on board, which has nowhere to go. […] At a time when self-interest seems to be the norm, we must do our duty to the full […] by coordinating prompt humanitarian intervention and arranging for the fair distribution of the migrants.”

Sassoli’s letter was widely reported by the international press; but - almost a week later - I have yet to see any report of Juncker’s reply.

Certainly, we have seen no change to the actual plight of those 121 people at sea… oh, except that they’re now 113, as Malta has accepted eight of them (with no prodding from the Commission) to be evacuated for medical treatment on land.

So – while I might be wrong – I’m guessing the Commission’s answer is the same as it has always been, all the years we’ve been members. It is still looking the other way.

And perhaps that’s just as well, for in any case, it is the Council of Ministers that has to be persuaded in this instance. That’s basically 28 national governments, all of which (ourselves included) unabashedly act in their own self-interest, all the time. And the decision has to be unanimous, too. One single dissenting member state can derail the entire agreement, at any moment.

Exactly how anyone can expect any ‘reform of Dublin 2’ to even take place at all, under such circumstances – and even then, that the reform would actually solve the problem in a way that’s equitable to all 28 countries – is something that has puzzled me for almost a decade now.

But it’s a bit irrelevant anyway, because… in case I haven’t already made myself sufficiently clear on this point: IT’S NOT GOING TO BLOODY HAPPEN!

There: could have spared myself around a thousand words by just blurting that out sooner. But then, all you’d have to read today would have been one measly little sentence…

Meanwhile, all that remains is to see what to do about the problem, in the absence of any ‘co-operation and assistance’ from the EU. Again, the answer looks pretty straight-forward to me.

Those ‘ad hoc, bilateral agreements’ I mentioned earlier? Where individual countries get together (like they’ve done for centuries) and form common policies among themselves… i.e., without any input from any major pan-Continental trade federations they may also be members of?

They should become permanent.  Instead of repeating that pointless ‘EU must do more!’ mantra… we should do more ourselves.

Malta has already successfully negotiated at least four international agreements on the distribution of rescued migrants, with countries like Germany, France, Sweden and others.

To me, that looks like a good basis for a whole new international treaty, of the kind that has eluded the EU all these years: one that would provide a functional mechanism for people like those 121 migrants to be brought safely to shore within a reasonable time-frame (i.e, to be measured in hours instead of weeks); and so that all those ‘jurisdictional responsibilities’ we keep arguing about would be clearly laid down, in black on white, in a legally binding document.

There, that doesn’t sound too hard, does it? And oh look, there’s a meeting between four or five of those countries to be held right here, in Malta, next week. What a coincidence! And what perfect timing, too. So… what are we all waiting for?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: a reform of Dublin 2 that will never, ever happen…

More in Blogs