EAST WEST – Europe assaulted

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Emergencies are no place for innovation, but without a political vision that can see beyond merely defensive stopgaps, the demographic revolution now underway can only result in social mayhem.


The migratory exodus towards Europe we have seen in recent months calls for two kinds of interventions: emergency measures to handle the flow of people and alleviate the terrible human suffering, and structural measures to ensure refugee reception is no longer such a mammoth undertaking and can be shared by everyone, viewed as a socially useful cause. As always, we begin by quoting a few figures to help our reflections.

According to the latest (not fully corresponding) figures from the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), between 350,000 and 450,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean since the start of this year.

That compares with the 290,000 people who came by sea during the whole of 2014! Approximately 200,000 of the arrivals were in Greece and over 100,000 in Italy.

Reported deaths in the Mediterranean amount to 2,800 (a blood-curdling figure!). We are facing unprecedented pressure on our borders, particularly in Greece, Italy and Hungary. While Italy has welcomed around 100,000 refugees in 2015, one for every 600 inhabitants, over the same period Greece has seen 160,000 people reach its shores, one for every 73 of its citizens.

Greece has borne the biggest burden – and by a large margin – compared to Italy, which has the second-highest landings. In recompense, during the same period almost half of all asylum applications in EU countries were filed in Germany.

This dramatic crisis also further demonstrates that European integration will only take decisive steps forward when politics prevail over regulations, given that the latter are definitely antiquated. The Dublin Convention (ratified in 1990, a geological age ago) established that asylum applications were to be presented in the country where entry to the EU first takes place. Faced with an exodus on the scale outlined above, it’s obvious that the first arrival countries have been forced – not out of interest but of necessity – to let the refugees move on to make their asylum applications elsewhere (as I personally witnessed Greek police officers doing on an island in the Aegean).

The political event of the last few days (which has been given little attention) is that EU interior ministers have accepted the European Commission’s plan for the mandatory relocation of 120,000 asylumseekers among EU countries. Agreement on the quotas was reached by a majority vote instead of a unanimous decision, with opposition from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. This was an historic turnaround in favour of a proposal inflicting a heavy impact on national sovereignty, effectively imposing solidarity even on those countries against the plan.

Faced with Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, 21 out of 25 countries – Britain, Denmark and Ireland have an optout clause for EU asylum and immigration policies – have all agreed to share the burden of receiving these refugees. This marks the moment when politics sidestepped the unanimity rule with the consent of the leaders of the four reluctant states.

In operational terms, the insufficient, individual national initiatives that handle the reception of asylum-seekers (including Italy’s commendable Mare Nostrum operation), save lives at sea and pursue the smugglers in international waters are now gradually being replaced by the joint European Triton initiative. Week after week, its economic, human and logistic resources are being boosted.

It was this climate that led Angela Merkel and François Hollande to decide to jointly address the European Parliament. It follows a prestigious precedent in 1989, a few days after the fall of the Berlin wall, when the then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and French President François Mitterrand, addressed the parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg, imagining a federal future for Europe enlarged to the east.

This is the Europe required for tackling the underlying problem. Until we decide to contribute to restoring peace in Syria, Iraq and Libya, we cannot hope to stem the exodus streaming towards our coasts.

There are three major players in the field today: the US, which actually decided to pull out of the Middle East a while ago; Russia, which has dusted down Soviet Union-era strategies and tactics (including the axis with the Assad family); and the European Union, which will only have a role to play if it tries to integrate its military policies. That way, as long as we speak with one voice, European diplomacy can develop some clout, rightfully demanding a place at the various talks and carrying greater authority than the despotic Tsar Putin and the reluctant Obama. Isolated initiatives such as the French air strikes against Islamic State are destined for the sidelines. 

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