There is no such thing as a ‘temporary’ deal on migration

The bottom line is that - without any agreement on a permanent reform of that manifestly unfair system – no amount of ‘ad hoc temporary deals’ will ever really make a significant difference to the core issue at stake

Imagine, for a second, that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson were to suddenly claim to have secured ‘the best possible deal for Britain’ in his negotiations with the EU: just like Theresa May had done before him… but with a significant difference.  

Let us also imagine that Johnson would announce this new deal with all the usual fanfare… but then, stop conspicuously short of divulging any details when questioned about it by the press or in Parliament.  

“Sorry, folks, but I can’t give any further information about the contents of this fantastic new deal I have singlehandedly negotiated on your behalf. You’re just going to have to take my word for it, when I assure you all that: a) this deal does really exist, and; b) it really is in our country’s best interest to simply accept it without question…”

Hmm. How do you reckon the British press, Parliament and public would react to that sort of announcement? I daren’t even guess, myself.
This is after all, the same United Kingdom whose House of Commons rejected Theresa May’s deal, not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession – even when they had absolutely certainty of its existence, and knew precisely what it contained.

Make no mistake: under those imaginary circumstances, there would be a right royal uproar… not just in Britain, but all over the rest of Europe, too. It would be held up as (yet another) example of Britain’s perceived slide towards fascism and autocracy; Johnson himself would be accused of withholding critical information from Parliament, the people, the Queen… and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.

There is, however, a reason why I’m framing all this in the future conditional: none of it has actually happened… yet.

But something remarkably similar – if not downright identical – did happen this week: right here in Malta, too. Nothing to do with Brexit, of course… but it does have a lot to do with another contentious hot potato of Europe-wide concern.

Immigration. Remember? The one issue over which Malta (along with all the EU’s other southern frontier states) has been practically begging the European Union for a ‘deal’ ever since we joined in 2004…?

Well, just like my imaginary Boris Johnson scenario, this week we were told – with all the usual fanfare – that a ‘deal’ on immigration has finally been struck.

All Maltese newspapers announced it on Monday: ‘European ministers agree on migrant disembarkation and relocation system’ was our headline; and everyone else ran with variations of the same theme.

And yet, when pressed for details about this fantastic new agreement… all those European ministers suddenly started shifting uncomfortably, avoiding eye-contact with journalists, and mumbling incoherently along the lines that: ‘the details will be divulged at a later date’.

The only ones willing to elaborate further limited themselves to vague and purely speculative comments, such as:

1) “We need to answer this question permanently. I am very satisfied that we have indeed reached a regulation agreement for emergency rescue. We cannot leave Malta on its own. We are inviting other member states to come on board with this agreement” - German interior minister Horst Seehofer. [Translation: ‘We tried to reach a permanent agreement, but failed.’]

2) “Those asylum seekers who arrive in Malta and Italy are arriving in Europe. This is the perception of European citizens. We have a strong willingness to work together.” - Italian home affairs minister Luciana Lamorgese [Translation: ‘We would like to help, but we’re not at all sure that we can.’]

3) “Today we have reached an agreement - this is just the first stop but it is an agreement which collected our four countries concerned with immediate solutions. We want to accompany Malta. The target of the agreement is to save lives, not to open a gate to Europe but to show solidarity with Malta and Italy.” - French interior minister Christophe Castaner [Translation: ‘Today we agreed that we all want an agreement… but haven’t actually secured one yet.’]

Interestingly enough, all those statements (just like my earlier fictitious example) are rooted in nothing more than wishful thinking: ‘We want…’, ‘We need…’; ‘We hope…’ ‘We are willing’… all predicated by the usual ‘ifs and buts’: ‘If all other member states come on board’; ‘but only if the other member states agree’, etc. etc.

I mean, honestly. How naïve has the Maltese media become, to fall so utterly for such a blatant ruse? And it’s not just the Maltese media, either. Even dedicated, experienced NGOs like Amnesty International seem to have swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

“Details of the agreement are still to be disclosed, but we expect it to lead to the establishment of a reliable system to ensure that people rescued in the Central Mediterranean are promptly and safely disembarked in Europe, and that EU countries step up and share responsibility for them,” said Eve Geddie, Director of the European Institutions Office at Amnesty International… adding: ‘“We hope this mechanism will put an end to the obscene spectacle of people left stranded on boats for weeks waiting to know where, or even if, they can disembark…’

Got that folks? Amnesty International ‘hopes’ that it will turn out to be a good deal; it ‘expects’ a positive outcome… even if we haven’t, to date, been given a single, tangible justification for any of those suppositions.

What does Amnesty actually base its expectations on, might I ask?  

Could it be the fact that all such past agreements proved entirely useless when it came to what matters most: i.e., establishing a PERMANENT agreement to cater for what is, after all, a permanent problem (at least, for the foreseeable future)?’

But tell you what: I’m in a generous mood today, so I’m willing to give all those European Ministers something they have not exactly given Malta much of in recent years: the benefit of the doubt.

Let us assume that – despite the complete lack of evidence so far – this celebrated ‘new deal’ on immigration really does exist; and that those EU ministers really did broker some form of agreement that will be put before the European Commission in early November.

What is the most we can realistically expect of this agreement, based on the scanty information given to us so far?

Let’s see now: we’ve been told that “an arrangement was reached with regard to the maximum amount of time refugees can remain detained or at sea before relocation…”

Surely, you will not need little me to tell you that the operative word in that sentence is… ‘relocation’.

This is, in fact, the sole reason migrants end up stranded at sea so often… precisely because European countries keep squabbling over whose responsibility it is to take them in, each and every single time.

So it is patently useless to establish ‘time-limits’ for their rescue… when there is still no agreement in place over their subsequent distribution and resettlement (which is what causes the impasse in the first place).

The question therefore becomes: has an agreement been reached over relocation? We can’t say for sure, because this detail has not so far been confirmed.

But even assuming that it has… what form does this agreement take, exactly? How different will it be from the six or seven previous ‘ad hoc, temporary agreements’ we already reached in all those other recent stand-off situations?

Once again, the few hints we’ve been given suggest that there is no real difference at all. Perhaps the biggest hint was dropped by outgoing migration EU commission Dimitris Avramopoulos: who said that the proposal “makes good progress towards a predictable and structural set of temporary arrangements”.

My translation for this one is slightly longer than the others.

What Avramopoulos seems to be saying here is that: “The most we can realistically expect from this ‘deal’ is just another temporary ad hoc agreement, of the kind we’ve already toyed with half a dozen times in the past couple of years alone… and which has only ever managed to postpone the problem, without ever solving it.

But we can’t even be sure of that, either: because this agreement only makes ’good progress’ towards achieving that objective. It still has to be endorsed by the Commission, and all the other member states….’

In other words: whatever ‘deal’ was struck in Malta this week, cannot possibly hope to be any more successful than all the other times we tried the same approach in the past. And yes, fair enough: with a structured mechanism in place, future migrant stand-offs might (but then again, might not) be easier to deal with on a case-by-case basis…

… but that’s not what Malta and the other southern member states have been demanding for 15 whole years, is it? No: what we’ve always wanted is a permanent change to the Dublin 2 Convention… which is the single root cause of all these stand-off situations to begin with.

When Italy decided to close down the port of Lampedusa, for instance… the official excuse was that it could no longer be considered a ‘safe port of call’ (as stipulated by Dublin 2). Also, the main bone of contention is the specification of ‘the NEAREST safe point of call’… which, in the context of Mediterranean search and rescue operations, can only ever mean ‘Malta, Italy, Spain or Greece’ (a fact which separately explains why countries that are not ‘Malta, Italy, Spain or Greece’ tend to vociferously object to any proposed reform of Dublin 2… landing us all back where we started.)

The bottom line is that - without any agreement on a permanent reform of that manifestly unfair system – no amount of ‘ad hoc temporary deals’ will ever really make a significant difference to the core issue at stake.

So a more accurate headline should really have been: ‘European ministers once again admit they failed to secure an effective agreement for relocation of rescued migrants… just like the last time, and the time before.’

There, much better. Only snag is that… well… it wouldn’t exactly be ‘news’, now would it?

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