A stop-gap measure, not a solution

Unless the EU adopts a uniform migration policy, acceptable to all members, we will continue to see populists gaining ground, and more incidents like the Aquarius

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

On the surface it may appear to be a case of ‘All’s well that ends well’... but the international repercussions of the ‘Aquarius’ standoff have clearly not been resolved by Spain’s decision to take responsibility for the vessel. Though the immediate fate of the 629 rescued migrants has been settled, the many underlying issues this episode has brought to light are unlikely to go away any time soon.

Migration, in general, is, of course, a highly complex issue, and this incident is no exception. On an immediate level, we are looking at an apparent failure of some of the most basic, archaic of international laws – the principle of saving lives at sea, no matter what – to actually function when called upon. Without entering into the arguments regarding who was most responsible for the implementation of that principle, in this particular circumstance... the fact remains that almost 700 people were left stranded at sea for five days, as countries argued in the background over legal and political niceties.

Given the geo-political reality of the situation, the arguments themselves are neither irrelevant nor frivolous. Indeed, it is part of the tragedy of the entire migration situation, that the countries most exposed to the influx have been largely left to their own devices to cope with it. This, in substance, is Italy PM Salvini’s point in a nutshell. As he himself put it, “The Italian military has been solely responsible for patrolling the central Mediterranean to rescue people and this cannot continue.”

But while the frustration may be understandable, the reaction cannot be justified so easily. Italy’s refusal to allow Aquarius into its own ports – despite the closer proximity than any other country – is not merely a dereliction of international legal obligations in such circumstances; it is also a political strategy in its own right. This incident was arguably the first – though it certainly won’t be the last – opportunity for a new government to illustrate its new migration policies in action.

As such, the Italian government is responding to the demands of its own electorate for a tougher stand, on an issue where Italy feels abandoned by the rest of Europe. There is far more than just a hint of populism in Italy’s entire handling of this situation.

It also sent a clear message that could not be ignored. Italy’s decision put Malta in the awkward position of being legally in the right, but – from an international media perspective – on morally shaky ground. Malta arguably did well to stand firm in refusing entry to the vessel; to do otherwise would have created a dangerous precedent, especially with the Italian government already showing that it is ready to break international law.

Unfortunately, Malta’s position still resulted in a mounting – though mercifully brief – humanitarian crisis on our own doorstep. It is all well and good to blame Italy for breaking international law – which it did, on numerous counts: first by ignoring the fact that Lampedusa was the closest, safest port of call to the location of the rescue; and then by illegally ordering the ship to stop in its tracks in international waters, in breach of international maritime law.

But there is a danger in standing up to the bullying tactics of Italy’s government: it is a stand that will likewise go down well with local populist elements... but not, however, with international observers, who do not see ‘populism’ only in Italy. So even if Malta’s actions were understandable and/or justifiable... it is cold comfort, given that the underlying political/legal problem remains very emphatically unresolved. Relying on the benevolence of third countries to intervene – as happened in this case – is only a stop-gap measure. In a repeat scenario, the same dilemma will unfold again.

The Aquarius impasse therefore also illustrated that the rest of Europe cannot afford to indefinitely ignore the problem.  Spain’s action stood out more as an exception, than as a rule. Sadly, it is undeniable that, though migration is a European issue, other member states have so far failed to play ball: among other things, on migrant relocation quotas. In this, Malta and Ireland are the only exceptions, having fulfilled the quotas agreed at EU level.

Elsewhere, while all parties seem to agree that a long-term solution is needed, there has been no apparent progress on any reforms of the Dublin II Treaty, among other matters that require attention. The irony is that when Salvini calls for a European solution to migration, his best friends in the bloc are the very same countries that are refusing the quota system, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

One solution that has been muted for years is the creation of UN-EU-run reception centres in Libya to stop the dangerous sea crossings, and the creation of legal channels of migration. The plan sounds appealing on paper; but it does not address the issue of where those received at the reception centres will eventually be sent in Europe; or whether the European countries will comply.

That only takes us back to square one. Unless the EU adopts a uniform migration policy, acceptable to all members, we will continue to see populists gaining ground, and more incidents like the Aquarius.