After EU summit, critics unhappy about pushback plan for the EU’s election year

Populists have set the EU’s migration agenda: the Malta summit tried to outbid Europe’s rising populists with a plan to block migration

Making the sea crossing: EU leaders in Malta earlier this week cross the Grand Harbour during a summit in which they discussed migration. From left: Klaus Iohannis of Romania, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EC president Jean-Claude Juncker, French president Francois Hollande, and Luxembourg and Belgian prime ministers Xavier Bettel and Charles Michel
Making the sea crossing: EU leaders in Malta earlier this week cross the Grand Harbour during a summit in which they discussed migration. From left: Klaus Iohannis of Romania, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EC president Jean-Claude Juncker, French president Francois Hollande, and Luxembourg and Belgian prime ministers Xavier Bettel and Charles Michel

Migration, Trump and Brexit dominated the largely forgettable EU summit in Malta and although it is yet to be seen whether any of the agreed-upon measures can be implemented, many EU leaders went back home hoping that their polling numbers improved. 

In a matter of months, the rise of far-right and populist parties has transformed Europe’s debate from managing migration to keeping people away. 

At the end of the one-day meeting in Valletta, EU leaders agreed on a number of measures to stem the flow of asylum seekers in the Central Mediterranean route, including the proposal to block migrants at sea.

The plan however hinges on cooperation with Libya, which remains engulfed in chaos, with three governments and several militias vying for control of the North African country’s vast territory.

The final declaration by EU leaders seeks to replicate the deal struck with Turkey last year, which has halted most migrant crossings of the Eastern Mediterranean on the so-called Western Balkan route to Greece.

The EU-Libya deal is set to be based on the agreement signed between Italy and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. 

The agreement signed just before the Malta summit is the “one first decent shot at trying to get proper management of migratory flows in the Central Mediterranean” route, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.

In a nutshell, the Italians will supply cash and training resources for the Libyans to stop the departure of migrant boats.

But despite all the talk of “saving lives at sea, breaking the business model of smugglers and traffickers, and improving living conditions and reception capacities in and around Libya,” the situation in Libya is anything but stable and implementing the measures will be prove to be a gargantuan task. 

The EU wants to pay local communities around Libyan borders and smuggling hotspots to stop transporting migrants across the desert or to sea; and after stopping the crossings, it hopes that Libya – notorious for its violence towards sub-Saharan Africans and migrants – will process asylum claims.

Until a few months ago, smugglers were operating freely from Agadez in Niger, where they picked up their human cargo in broad daylight to cross over into Libya. Here even police and solders are reliant on smuggling.

But Niger is now one of the EU’s five ‘priority partnership countries’, expecting some €610 million in development aid. It also hosts an EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) field office in Agadez, which provides local security forces with equipment and training.

In November, the IOM – which monitors the transit in Agadez – saw the traffic drop from 72,000 in May 2016, to 12,000 in November. This was the kind of “concrete progress” the EU was waiting for.

But the real result was that migrants and smugglers were choosing alternatives to the routes: some more dangerous, leading to new anecdotal evidence of increased deaths in the desert.

Now, by going ahead with the Malta plan, the EU leaders have all but declared Libya a safe third country. 

As the UNHCR pointed out this week, limiting departures from the Libyan coast simply means accepting and legitimising the human suffering prevailing in Libya and pushing people back to conditions where migrants suffer arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, unlawful killings, trafficking and enforced disappearance.

In the final declaration, EU leaders said they will seek “to ensure adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants,” together with the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 

However, hours before the EU leaders adopted Malta’s proposals, the UNHCR and IOM warned that “it is not appropriate to consider Libya a safe third country nor to establish extraterritorial processing of asylum-seekers in North Africa.”

EU leaders forged ahead in full knowledge that the deal with Libya – which effectively attempts to make block people at sea and push the EU border down to Libya’s shores – is nothing but wishful thinking.

Yet, the declaration signed by EU leaders whets the appetite of domestic voters, especially in countries where elections will be held imminently. 

EU leaders could have easily looked into other options, such as reopening the discussion on relocation and establishing legal routes to Europe.

However, they chose to appease domestic concerns on migration by promising to stop the flow of asylum seekers as they attempt to stem the rise of populist and far-right parties who are exploiting the fears – legitimate and not – created by migration, especially among the working and middle classes. 

Electoral appointments 

Four important elections are being held in 2017, in the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany and all sitting heads of state (with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel) risk losing power.

Trump’s victory in the US and Brexit have emboldened Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and populist parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Northern League and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy. 

Elections are also being held in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic this year, while another seven countries, including Malta, will go to the polls in 2018. 

Voters across the continent are concerned by migration, and their fears go beyond its effect on jobs and the economy.

Voters fear that migration are not only threatening their jobs and wellbeing but that their identity too. People fear that migration may change society as they know it.

So far, the response of EU leaders has been disjointed and in order to keep the populists and far-right parties away from the seats of power, parties in government and mainstream parties want to keep asylum seekers away from the gates of Europe. 

Merkel’s decision to welcome more than one million asylum seekers in 2015 alone came back to haunt her party electorally, with the far-right AfD making significant inroads in last year’s regional elections. 

This has led to Merkel taking a more hawkish stand and other mainstream European leaders have followed suit. 

There is no easy solution to dealing with migration, especially as the situation in the Middle East and developing countries in Africa and Asia. However, as the UNHCR, IOM and many others have warned, disregarding human rights and striking deals with unstable and authoritarian regimes should not be used to win elections. 

The rise of anti-European nationalism will not be washed away by EU declarations of intent, as long as inequalities exist asylum seekers will find new ways of entering Europe.