Tragedy in the Mediterranean

21.04.15 Publication:

It may seem heartless to describe the tragedy of the migrants’ ship as symbolic, since the bodies and the deaths are so real. Nevertheless, to this British pro-European, it is symbolic of the way that the dreamed-of unity and collective approach of the European Union is descending into division, disillusion, resentment and the blame-game.

Beyond those divisions, the transformation of the Mediterranean into a cemetery is also a symbol of impotence, of the failure of the largest economy in the world, of a group of the richest and most advanced countries that exist, to act successfully or even strongly in the face of the instability and flight of refugees in its own neighbourhood. But it is also a symbol of ignorance and lack of awareness of the whole picture.

All EU countries have their own domestic political battles about immigration. So each appears to believe that their battle, their problems, are uniquely difficult and uniquely severe. This provides an excuse to ignore other countries’ problems and to blame them for not helping with yours.

To name some examples: Germany is the EU’s – in fact, the developed world’s – largest recipient of refugees. More than 100,000 are settling in Germany each year. This has caused street demonstrations against immigration. Sweden receives the largest number of refugees in proportion to its population (more than 80,000 last year). This boosted the vote of the right-wing Sweden Democrats in last year’s general election.

France has the EU’s largest Muslim population, fear or anger at which fuels the Front National of Marine Le Pen. Britain has had the most rapid population growth among big EU countries, largely thanks to immigration, which Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party has been exploiting (though it does not seem to be succeeding well for him in the election due on May 7th). And Italy and Malta are on the front line of the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, especially from Libya, and feel uniquely besieged.

What this should tell us all is that no one is to blame, but all of us share the same, or similar, set of issues: how to police illegal immigration, how many refugees to receive, how to find ways to integrate those who stay into society, how to afford the public costs of such integration, how to deal with the grievances of existing citizens who fear migrants are stealing their jobs or money.

That is why it is madness not to take a fully European approach, one which brings all aspects of the migration issue together, especially now that the migrant flows from North Africa and the Middle East have become so unusually large.

Instead, Europeans have been collaborating only issue by issue, which usually means with too little money and too little energy, as over Mare Nostrum and its successor Triton, and growing more divided.

A fuller, more coherent collaboration would combine the issues of policing, processing, integration and persuasion all under one roof, so that all EU countries took part in all of them, and exchanged information and experiences.

We are able to co-operate and co-ordinate when we send our navies to combat pirates in the Indian Ocean, so why cannot we do the same in our own sea, the Mediterranean, and on our eastern borders through which Syrian refugees are travelling? We could, but to make it politically viable we would need a shared approach to deciding which migrants can stay and where they can be allowed to go.

Then we need shared approaches to how to integrate migrants, which most immediately means a shared approach to welfare costs and entitlements. That would make it easier to persuade the public in all our countries that what is happening is fair, reducing the mistrust and blame-games.

Yet as the latest tragedy showed, we are far, far from this point. European values are sinking.