German Chancellor Angela Merkel, addressing the Bundestag on the morning of June 28, ominously stated that immigration could make or break the European Union. The backdrop to her speech was her struggle to survive the challenge of her rebellious right-wing Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who threatened unilaterally to send back refugees who had been registered in other EU countries.

Merkel was also sending an alerting message to her European colleagues who were to meet later that day for the June European Council. Migration was at the top of their agenda, and they were trying for the umpteenth time to find solutions to the current migration crisis which, in the eyes of many Europeans, was making a mockery of European values and solidarity.  The June summit was particularly tense because it had to find solutions to combat the populist approach to migration that was being taken by various member states.

Populist and extreme right parties are on the rise in the EU. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, either have governments led by populist parties or have formidable right-wing parties in opposition challenging for government.

In most of these member states populism has developed as a rejection of European integration and as a defence of national interests over collective European interests.

As Europe seems to be once more overwhelmed by a migration crisis, populist and extreme-right politicians are fully exploiting these developments in two directions.  They target the immigrants themselves as a threat to national identity, as a burden on the State’s social services, and as harbingers of crime and terrorism.

They also target the EU for its lack of efficiency in securing borders and providing security, and for its inability to implement an effective and equitable migration policy.

By promoting anti-immigration and anti-European policies, populist politicians have not only stalled the drive for European integration, but are seriously threatening to derail the European project itself.

The most common tactic adopted by populist leaders to get crowds is to identify a common enemy, which can be easily blamed for their country’s troubles and allegedly unjust treatment. In line with other European populists, the current Italian government has identified immigration and the EU as the crowd-winning focus. To these it has added Malta.

During the Aquarius stand off last June, both Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli vociferously accused Malta of “looking the other way when it comes to respecting precise international conventions on the protection of human life”. They maintained their anti-Malta rhetoric even though Malta was acting in full conformity with its international obligations.

In the Aquarius case the migrants had been rescued in the Libyan search and rescue area and the operation had been conducted by theItalian rescue coordination centre in Rome. Thus Malta had no obligation to accept the rescued migrants.

The latest stand-off concerned the 190 migrants picked by the Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti on August 15 from an overcrowded boat on the high sea. Thirteen migrants were immediately taken for emergency treatment in Italy; however, Rome insisted that the remaining migrants should be taken to Malta since the migrant boat had first passed through Malta’s search and rescue area.

The Maltese government clarified that the Armed Forces of Malta had located the group of migrants in international waters. They had refused assistance and insisted on continuing on their way to Lampedusa. At that stage the migrants were not at risk and the AFM had no right to stop them because they were in international waters. It is clear that Malta has once more acted in line with international maritime law. Nonetheless, the populist leaders in Rome decided to exploit the situation to target Malta once again.  On August 19, Salvini claimed that the Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti had intervened to save lives because Malta had refused to assist and he called for sanctions against Malta.

Populism has developed as a rejection of European integration and as a defence of national interests over collective European interests

This call for sanctions is blatantly unjust considering that Malta has consistently complied with its international obligations and honoured its pledges whenever a refugee distribution deal had been struck.

The next salvo, this time targeting the EU, came from the Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio.  On the eve of a meeting called by the Commission, he threatened that his party would vote to suspend funding to the EU next year unless other member states agreed to take the migrants on board the Diciotti. This threat sounds ludicrous and self-defeating, to say the least.

The Commission played it down, explaining that though Italy was indeed a net contributor to the EU budget, it nonetheless received between €10 and €12 billion euros every year in structural funds and EU programmes, and additional substantial funding under the Asylum, Migration and Integration fund.

These are a small part of the benefits Italy, like all other member states, enjoys from being part of the EU, and from being part of the internal market.

The meeting organised by the Commission on August 24 for diplomats from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, the 12 countries most directly concerned by migration management issues, did not succumb to the Italian threats.  After the meeting the Commission spokesperson pointed out that the meeting had not been convened specifically to solve the Diciotti case, but was an informal meeting to work on the follow-up to the June European Council.

To combat the populist exploitation of the migration crisis, member states and the Commission should learn from this summer’s experience, and act on the urgent need to agree on mechanisms for dealing with rescued migrants and their distribution.

The press coverage being given to the ordeal of stranded migrants and to the diatribes of populist leaders is perhaps overshadowing the work being done at EU level.

The Commission reiterates that it stands ready to support member states and third countries to cooperate better on the disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea. With this in mind, on July 24, it published its recommendations on the concepts of controlled centres and regional disembarkation arrangements.

These two concepts were first put forward by European leaders at the June European Council in an attempt to achieve a balance between populist demands and the obligation to protect asylum seekers under international law. The objective of controlled centres in the EU is to intervene quickly when a boat carrying migrants arrives in the waters of a member state. According to the proposal, the Commission will organise, together with the voluntary countries hosting the centres, the transfer of migrants in care.

Reinforced teams of European officials, from EASO, Frontex and Europol, will carry out initial registration and screening within 72 hours. The EU will provide full financial support to volunteering member states to cover the transfers as well as infrastructure and operational costs.

The Commission is prepared to set up a pilot project as soon as possible.

The other track on which the EU is working is the concept of regional disembarkation platforms in close collaboration with relevant third countries, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The Commission’s recommendations, published on July 24, focus on the objective of providing quick and safe disembarkation of rescued persons in line with international law, and a responsible post-disembarkation process.

However, agreement on the asylum package, including the reform of the Dublin regulation, remains paramount for long-term solutions. The Austrian presidency is currently holding a series of bilateral meetings with member states in the hope of making enough progress to enable European leaders to take decisions during the informal summit in Salzburg on September 20.

Populist leaders should learn not to neglect important priorities during a crisis to instead occupy themselves with unimportant matters for short-term gains. They who deplore the lack of European solutions should remember that to implement sustainable and durable solutions to the complex migration challenges, the EU must be united.

The exclusive and short-sited pursuit of ‘national interests’ can never lead to sustainable European solutions for the benefit of all EU citizens.

Edward Zammit Lewis is chairman of the Parliamentary Permanent Standing  Committee of Foreign and European Affairs.


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