Diversity, but no unity

It now appears that the EU has come full circle: if not actually taken a step backwards. After the mandatory responsibility-sharing mechanism which introduced quotas in 2015, EU leaders have returned to voluntary mechanisms

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

After an eventful week culminating in a tenuous agreement on voluntary burden sharing between the 28 EU member states, the question on many people’s lips will surely be: where is the ‘solidarity’ the European Union always talks about?

Despite a show of optimism by European leaders this week, the agreement raises as many questions as it answers. It calls for the creation of closed migrant reception centres in EU countries for the fast processing of asylum applications; but fails to say where these centres will be located. It calls for the quick return of those not deserving protection, but fails to specify how this will happen. Past experience teaches us that deportation is not as easy as it appears on paper: it requires the consent and co-operation of the countries of origin, which in many cases is not even realistically possible.

The agreement also calls on “all ships” in the Mediterranean, which includes migrant rescue ships run by NGOs, to respect international law and not interfere in operations of the Libyan coastguard. At a glance this seems unnecessary, as those obligations already exist, and have existed for centuries.

Above all, however, the agreement amounts to a series of declared intentions – all in themselves commendable – without any clear indications of the mechanisms that will make those intentions come to pass. As such, it is virtually indistinguishable from other pacts signed before – in 2008, for instance, and more recently in 2015 – which can be seen to have failed.

Even the individual proposals themselves bring with them a sensation of déjà-vu. The summit agreed that member states should create closed reception centres to process migrant asylum claims. In many ways, this is nothing new. Malta has its own reception centres, as presumably do, other EU countries.

The overarching problem, however, is the voluntary nature of the agreement. Such voluntary mechanisms do not have a track record of success. One can recall the Labour Party’s strong criticism in 2011 on EU conclusions that spoke of voluntary burden sharing. “Malta needs solidarity not charity,” ran the PL tag line at the time.

It now appears that the EU has come full circle: if not actually taken a step backwards. After the mandatory responsibility-sharing mechanism which introduced quotas in 2015, EU leaders have returned to voluntary mechanisms.

Once again, it is up to individual member states to introduce reception centres on a voluntary basis; it is also up to member states to decide whether to accept the relocation of migrants from other member states.

This is not solidarity. It is little more than political posturing, that tries to patch up severe differences between north and south, west and east.

The issue that precipitated this agreement itself also attests to its fragility. The week-long ordeal to try and find member states willing to agree to take in the migrants that disembarked in Malta from the Lifeline, described as ad hoc agreement, confirms the fact that voluntary mechanisms are a hard-slog to activate when push comes to shove.

What happens when the next boatload of migrants is rescued and brought ashore to Malta or Italy? What long-term strategy does this pact introduce, that did not exist before?

Short of closing the borders and reneging on international obligations to save lives at sea, the frontline states will still have to patch up a ‘coalition of the willing’ each and every time. The solution is unrealistic, unworkable and could even put people’s lives at risk unnecessarily.

Apart from lacking in solidarity towards the countries on the frontline, the EU’s approach also seems lacking in altruism towards genuine asylum seekers who take such risks to get to Europe in the first place. The only message of note to the outside world is that Europe does not want migrants, full-stop. Whether that will be enough to stop people fleeing desperation from trying to make it to European shores, has yet to be seen. It is certainly not enough for the EU to live up to its own lofty ideals of human rights protection.

One of the conclusions calls on all ships in the Mediterranean, including NGO vessels, not to interfere with the actions of the Libyan coastguard. And as if to stress the point, the Captain of the MV Lifeline, which brought the saved migrants over to Malta, is waiting to be arraigned. Indeed, Malta and Italy have found Europe’s support, in their controversial decisions to close their ports to NGOs in the hope that the Libyan coastguard will stop migrants before they enter into any of the European search and rescue zones.

This is a worrying development, as it signifies Europe’s will to simply wash its hands of the problem, and dump it on Libya instead. This will only bolster the international impression of Fortress Europe; and even worse, it will do nothing to address any of the root causes of irregular migration to begin with.

Trying to block migration at source is very questionable from a human rights perspective, when Libya remains in the state it’s in. One would have expected, at the very least, a clearer commitment to contribute to the re-stabilisation of Libya... especially given the prominent roles several EU states played in that country’s destabilisation in 2011.

Ultimately, this agreement illustrates Europe’s diversity far more than its supposed unity.