Rebordering Europe: a dangerously contagious lose-lose game

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The island of Lampedusa

Summer is kicking in, and navigation in the Mediterranean becomes more pleasant for some, slightly less dangerous for others. With migration pressure on the rise, the political temperature is also increasing. Nothing new, unfortunately. But this year, this tragic routine is taking an even more vicious and threatening turn.

The crisis is over!

When the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016 started to produce its intended effects in terms of migration containment along the Eastern Mediterranean route, the illusion grew, in many European capitals, that the “refugee crisis” was over. The illusion got deeper in the summer of 2017, when also inflows through the Central Mediterranean route gradually decreased as a consequence of a set of largely informal and confidential agreements struck between the Italian government on the one hand, and a blurred and fragmented galaxy of Libyan authorities and tribal leaders on the other.

With arrivals reduced to pre-2015 levels (-76% in Italy so far, compared with the corresponding period in 2017), what had been framed as an “existential threat” for the EU was downgraded to one-among-many policy priorities. After the demise of the controversial relocation scheme for the redistribution of asylum-seekers among Member States, in September 2017, any ambition of a radical overhaul of the European migration and asylum regime was dropped. Reform proposals of the unviable Dublin regulation, that would (although just mildly) alleviate the disproportional burden placed on peripheral countries like Italy and Greece, are still blocked by crossed vetoes. No lasting compromise is likely to emerge in the European Council that will be held on 27-28 June.

Or is it?

Perceptions that the migratory crisis is over and that Europe can muddle through unreformed have been wiped away by a stunning (and once again largely unforeseen) succession of political developments. On 10 June, the freshly appointed Italian Interior minister and Deputy Head of Government, Matteo Salvini, announced his decision to shut Italian ports to the NGO rescue ship Acquarius with 629 migrants on board. The day after, Spain’s new Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, gave permission for MS Aquarius to steer for Valencia. Salvini triumphantly exclaimed: “Raising your voice pays back!” But this boasted victory soon appeared a pyrrhic one.

In spite of France’s poor recent record in terms of intra-European solidarity and asylum-seekers’ admissions, President Emmanuel Macron branded the Italian move as “cynical and irresponsible” and the diplomatic wound took a while before being precariously stitched. In the meantime, the migrant outflow from Libya has continued, with Italian Navy and Coastguard ships bound to continue bringing rescued persons in Italian ports (at least as long as Rome intends to avoid open breaches of international law).

To sum up, a symbolical act of closure by the Italian government triggered equally symbolical acts of condemnation (by France) and of solidarity (by Spain). But the fundamental dysfunctionality of the European governance system remains completely unsolved. One-shot pushbacks and verbal attacks on migrants and NGOs are not enough to emancipate Italy from its uncomfortable geographical location and to dispel (justified) fears of getting permanently trapped into a buffer-state role.

From burden-sharing to burden-shifting

When burden-sharing fails, burden-shifting may be an understandable – although perhaps not commendable - reaction. But the Italian government’s threats against its weaker southern neighbours appear shortsighted, to say the least. Leaving aside the fact that Malta is already the fourth EU country in terms of asylum applicants per capita (after Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg, according to Eurostat’s Asylum Quarterly Report of March 2018), it is doubtful that the small island state could effectively contain African migration pressure on continental Europe. As for Tunisia, that was recently accused by Salvini of ”very often exporting criminals” to Italy, few would argue that putting additional pressure on the only Arab country where the “Spring” still somehow holds is really in our long-term strategic interest. And forcing Tunis to host reception camps for transit migrants awaiting resettlement or deportation would certainly not help in stabilising the country.

But it is not only in Italy that the crisis mood is back, and it is not just around the Mediterranean that domestic electoral concerns generate humanitarian failures and international tensions.

The vote scheduled in Bavaria for next October, and the surge of extreme-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the polls, are bringing the German government itself on the brink of crisis. On 14 June, the German Minister of the Interior and Bavaria’s Minister President for the last ten years, Horst Seehofer, has challenged Angela Merkel’s leadership with unprecedented harshness. Either he is given full power to reject asylum-seekers at land borders, or he threatens that the CSU (Bavarian sister-party to Merkel’s CDU and its closest ally since 1949) could withdraw its support to the governemnt and push the country to new elections.

Horst Seehofer in Bavaria

Merkel hesitates, knowing that bending to Seehofer’s request to seal national borders to each and every undocumented person could have huge systemic consequences. A cascade of subsequent border closures could be triggered throughout Europe, further deepening the political isolation of peripheral countries, and pushing voters deeper into the arms of xenophobic parties.

Amongst the many alarming aspects of this political landscape, a particularly striking one is that, both in Rome and in Berlin, Interior Ministers boosted by anti-migrant consensus (and further boosting it in their turn) feel strong enough to more or less openly challenge their institutional superiors.

The hectically evolving situation makes it particularly difficult to draw scenarios. In the short term, it may seem clear who wins and who loses with this acceleration of the domino game of border closures and burden-shifting. And short-term winners are often tempted to further raise the bet. But particularly for border countries, sporadic displays of force are likely to backfire, turning their geographical marginality into political isolation.

As for “core countries”, their perception of gaining security through harder borders could prove illusory too. In times of migration paranoia, this new kind of “beggar-thy-neighbour” may end up destabilising neighbours and making them more vulnerable to xenophobic nationalism or perhaps, depending on the latitude, to Islamic extremism. Cascade rewalling may in the end turn out to be a viciously contagious lose-lose game.

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