The EU has recently been found, by journalists’ investigations, to be running a ‘Libyan coastguard’, manned by militias and smugglers recruited and trained by the EU, and provisioned with Italian ships. This ‘coastguard’ operates off the Libyan coastline. The requisite papers were issued to the International Maritime Organisation with Italian contact numbers. Their ships work alongside EU surveillance flights that identify the ships so they can be taken back to Libya.
I’ll be plain from the outset. That the European Union has gone to such lengths to prevent refugees from crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing wars that many of its member states have aided, abetted or exacerbated, is morally discomforting in the extreme. It flouts international law, it creates further human suffering, and undermines the Union’s ideals. Nor should you mistake this for liberal hand-wringing. The moral high ground is of strategic importance. Respecting international law and human rights doesn’t just improve the humanitarian situation of those who are affected by the EU’s actions, such as refugees, but can also give them more authority to criticise and help prevent abuse elsewhere.
I think of myself as being avowedly pro-EU. Remain was my earliest political opinion to took shape with any real clarity or conviction, catalysed by the referendum of 2016, and further provoked by the heedless abandon with which successive Conservative governments have pursued Brexit. I saw, and still see, the EU as being key to safeguarding the rights, food standards, and economic and political interests of this country, and other member states. But how can I reconcile this with its behaviour in the Mediterranean?
It’s important to remember that the EU is not treading this path on a whim. It is doing so because it lacks a solution palatable to its member states, a state of affairs that we as a country have contributed to. When the migrant crisis was at its height between 2014-2016, with over almost 2 million refugees attempting to cross into Europe, and suffering hugely as a consequence, there was little desire in the UK to step up and take responsibility for refugees fleeing our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and little inclination to look after those fleeing from the chaos in Libya and Syria that we contributed to. When David Cameron decided to accept a mere 20,000 Syrian refugees over a 5 year period (there were 350,000 Syrians looking to claim asylum in the EU), he faced an outcry. The Sun, The Express and the Daily Mail’s headlines howled in opposition, while Farage unveiled his infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster the following year as part of the drive for Brexit. It’s likely that the fears around immigration that contributed to Brexit were greatly influenced by politicians’ and media response to the migrant crisis.
Then there’s the broader European picture. Backlash against the arrival of large numbers of refugees in Italy brought the anti-immigration and anti-EU 5 star movement into government in Italy, while Angela Merkel’s act of generosity in inviting refugees to claim asylum in Germany (a suspension of the usual rules, which dictate an asylum seeker should only claim asylum in the first safe country in which they are registered), generated a backlash in the rise of the Eurosceptic AfD. The AfD explicitly referred in public statements to there being too many Muslims coming into Germany. In France, the country’s leadership was reluctant to let refugees in, and the eurosceptic Marine Le Pen campaigned against the presence of refugees in France, proposing the ‘de-Islamisation’ of the country.
For EU decision-makers then, the situation is unenviable. Refugees want to enter Europe, but the pattern so far suggests that letting them in would lead to greater resentment and political upheaval. As a continent whose countries have contributed to the current problems in the regions they are fleeing, and given they are humans in need of aid, we have a moral obligation to help. But we don’t want to. Accommodation of refugees no longer seems politically viable, in the wake of Brexit, and the surge in support for anti-immigration platforms. And so the EU is abiding by the will of its member-states, as expressed in elections and referenda, and is trying to prevent further immigration to Europe. That they feel that such extreme lengths are necessary is more a comment on the views and attitudes of Europeans, erstwhile or otherwise, than on the EU.