Leadership is the way forward

Europe needs a united and human response that does not forget the values that forged it after World War II; and this will come only through strong leadership and a commitment to safeguard people’s lives.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

To say that the outcome of Europe’s mini-summit, held in the wake of the latest international disputes concerning migration, was a ‘disappointment’ would be an understatement. 

The summit ended in a 10-point plan that has been widely criticised for failing to secure any meaningful, mandatory commitment on relocation and distribution of illegal migrants. The resolution’s remaining points are all likewise rewordings of past policies that, with hindsight, can be seen to have failed.

As such, the outcome tells us more about the failure of the European Union to hit on a common approach, than about the issue it was intended to address. It illustrates the precise limits of what Malta – or any other member state – can expect at EU level.

In its conclusions for its disastrous mini-summit on migration, the European Council admitted that since 2015 – when it sought to outsource its control of the eastern and southern borders to Turkey and Libya – the number of detected illegal border crossings into the EU was brought down by 95% from its peak in October 2015, even if flows have been picking up recently on the Eastern and Western Mediterranean routes.

Effectively this has been a result of the subsiding of certain migration flows, notably those from Syria which represented the refugee crisis of that year, and which consolidated the divide inside the EU itself: the humanitarian model that is also costing German chancellor Angela Merkel’s her historic coalition, and the illiberal model advanced by the Visegrad states – HungaryPoland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – to close borders and ignore the phenomenon.

 So long as the world remains divided into one of disorder, and one of order, there is no doubt that migration will persist – both illegal and legal; but also that a minority of the world’s global refugee population – which is too poor to move anywhere beyond their country’s immediate borders – will attempt to move into Europe because there is a demand for access, and a global criminal enterprise ready to facilitate it.

At heart, this makes it an onerous logistical, security and humanitarian phenomenon that EU states have to deal with.

As long as Europe’s current asylum policies lack the single legislative model that has been applied in other areas, the burden will remain entirely on the countries that receive the most migrants: Malta, Italy and Eastern European states. This is where right-wing populists find fertile ground to stoke fears about asylum seekers and foreign workers coming to Europe; and where such member states lack strong welfare or social solidarity bonds, and proper integration policies, it is a recipe for a far-right incursion into centrist political consensus.

It is happening in Italy, where the populist right-wing coalition in government has turned its guns on Malta, attempting to browbeat the island by ignoring international SAR rules and law. Germany – with Merkel buckling under pressure of the conservative right CSU – Austria and Italy will now hold talks on how to shut down the Mediterranean route, by setting up migrant transit centres from which migrants refused asylum can be sent back.

This may defuse a dispute that threatens to bring down Merkel’s ruling coalition; but that process will also mean pushing out migrants into neighbouring EU states at their borders.

Such bilateral agreements can only be dangerous for a country like Malta, which depends on European solidarity to address migration – as attested by Joseph Muscat’s coup last week to relocate the Aquarius asylum seekers between France, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Belgium, Italy, Ireland and Spain. As that achievement shows, this can only happen with strong leadership, and co-operation between different EU countries. Even though our country remains a price-taker in international relations, it can be an inspiration for those countries that seek deeper European solidarity. This is surely the way forward.

Sadly, Muscat’s leadership must be counterbalanced by the seemingly scant regard for human life inherent in his closed-ports policy. Malta’s blockade against NGOs seems to be only appeasing troublesome neighbours like Italy, while exacerbating the dangers of a crossing that has already claimed thousands of lives.

But the immigration phenomenon also poses a challenge to Europe’s much-vaunted humanitarian dimension. Any form of regional disembarkation platforms must be implemented with full respect for human rights, offering asylum seekers and migrants full rights for a judicial review and protection in such centres.

Just as urgently, countries like Malta also need a revision of the Dublin Regulation: the law that lays down that asylum seekers must file their applications in the first EU country they reach; and also a common migration system for responsibility-sharing of migrants.

Additionally, humanitarian visas inside EU embassies in third countries – Niger is one of many African locations where the EU is seeing to ‘regionalise’ its externalised fight against illegal migration – could be a way of offering protection to asylum seekers, and reduce the allure of trafficking.

Europe needs a united and human response that does not forget the values that forged it after World War II; and this will come only through strong leadership and a commitment to safeguard people’s lives. The EU has to commit itself to a Mare Nostrum if it believes in keeping its borders secure, but also safe and humane.