Keep ’em out

Europe has lost its soul in the refugee crisis

Mittelmeer: Rettung von Flüchtlingen in Seenot
What’s Europe like? Source: Picture Alliance

How convenient it would have been if the 629 migrants rescued by SOS Méditerranée on the MS Aquarius had drowned instead. Sure, it would have been awful. But the deaths would quickly have been a mere statistic of the kind we have got used to. The media would have churned out a few chilling headlines, and then moved on. This or that European politician would have uttered the usual platitudes. Most wouldn’t have bothered at all. And everybody would have just gone on with their lives, once again oblivious to the corpses at the bottom of the sea, anonymous and faceless like dust under a rug.

But the migrants aboard the Aquarius did not drown. Unlike the 10,000 women, men and children who went missing while attempting to reach European shores in the past three years, they got lucky. A French NGO patrolling the Mediterranean had plucked them out of their overcrowded dinghies, where they were facing certain death. Among the migrants are seven pregnant women and over 100 children or minors. Most of them are from sub-Saharan Africa.

The case of the Aquarius has since cascaded through the politics of the European Union. Italy’s new populist government closed its ports to the ship, international obligations and human decency be damned. Malta didn’t let the Aquarius dock either. Fortunately, Spain’s new prime minister finally stepped in and offered the Aquarius a safe harbor in Valencia. The Africans got there on Sunday, after a week-long odyssey in precarious conditions.

A few feel-good soundbites

All the while, the French president cast aspersions rather than lifting a finger. Emmanuel Macron criticized Italy’s “cynicism and irresponsibility” for not taking in the boat people. Never mind that several French ports were much closer than Valencia. In fact, Paris quashed an offer by Corsican regional authorities for the Aquarius to dock there. Italy was furious at Macron’s hypocrisy.

This is the same Emmanuel Macron who, in January of last year, praised Angela Merkel because she had “saved our collective dignity” by allowing Germany to take in hundreds of thousands of migrants during the refugee crisis of 2015. “Chancellor Merkel and German society as a whole were up to the mark of our joint values,” Mr. Macron told German newspapers. Back then, he was a political nobody, a candidate in France’s crowded presidential election race with a slim chance of winning.

His lofty words have since fallen flat. Since he took power, Mr. Macron has done little to end the asylum stalemate in the EU, aside from a few feel-good soundbites. France’s policies fly in the face of his hollow lectures. Paris has taken in less than 10 percent of the 9,816 refugees from Italy it had agreed on under an EU resettlement scheme from 2015. It has closed its long border with Italy to migrants headed north, leaving hundreds stranded outside of the resort town of Ventimiglia. Untold numbers have died in the Alps, trying to make the perilous crossing that’s off the well-trodden paths in order to avoid being caught.

Spain Europe Migrants
Too much for the EU to handle, obviously. Source: AP

It gets worse. The French government has prosecuted law-abiding citizens for the crime of assisting immigrants after they entered the country on foot — a felony that disbelieving observers nicknamed délit de solidarité. And Paris routinely looks the other way while far-right vigilante groups patrol the borders and scare away exhausted migrants.

France is not alone in its appalling behavior. Belgium, too, is prosecuting citizens under the controversial “crime of solidarity” towards illegal migrants. Denmark confiscates the valuables of anybody who has the temerity to apply for asylum there. Last month, a center-right minister in Copenhagen suggested that Muslims in certain jobs should be banned from working during Ramadan. It won’t be long until someone suggests barring them from certain professions altogether.

And Germany — ach, Germany. The country that saved the continent’s dignity three years ago is now so transfixed by its own xenophobic far right that the question of whether to allow in a few thousands of relatives from the refugees’ home countries caused coalition talks to fail last year. And now the government is on the verge of collapse because right-wingers want to crack down even harder on immigration.

In neighboring Austria, a young and ambitious chancellor who governs with the far right has called for an “axis of the willing” with Italy and Germany to combat illegal immigration. A right-wing axis from Berlin to Rome — that sure has a ring to it.

Bring in warships

So maybe the Axis should live up to its name and bring in warships to sink the migrants’ dinghies. Nothing short of this will stop desperate people with nothing to lose from attempting to come to Europe. No one embarks on a dangerous journey across the Sahara and then on unseaworthy boats without a truly compelling reason.

Or perhaps EU politicians should instead grow a conscience and stop selling their souls for a few far-right votes. Pedro Sánchez of Spain has put Mr. Macron, Ms. Merkel and Italy’s Matteo Salvini to shame. Spain is a troubled country — it has high unemployment, a struggling economy and is mired in its worst political crisis in decades as Catalonia tries to secede. And with the Moroccan coast clearly visible from its southernmost region, it is also on the front line of the refugee crisis. More than 10,000 migrants arrived there by sea this year alone. Yet most Spaniards don’t blame immigrants for all their ills or vote for far-right parties to keep them out. The Spanish prime minister didn’t think twice about doing the right thing.

So if Spain can do it, why not the rest of the EU? It will take many years until significant progress is made to solve the root causes of the migrant crisis. In the meantime, we need to put the problems into perspective. Europe is the richest continent in the world and certainly can handle a few thousand migrants in a dignified manner.

But all the hemming and hawing has not helped. If France and other EU countries had respected their pledges to support Italy instead of bickering, the far right probably wouldn’t be in power in Rome now. And the EU could be working on solving its more pressing problems, and there are plenty.

To reach the author: hauteville@handelsblatt.com.

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