What the world needed was a subtle, considered approach to a complex and emotionally fraught situation. What the EU has brought to the table instead is a sledgehammer and a net. In the last eight days, 1,300 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, a situation correctly described as ‘Europe’s Shame’ by newspapers across the globe.
They were men, women and children, who had fled famine, war, torture or disease in the Middle East or the African continent, then picked their way through the chaos of a Libya disintegrating in the wake of a war in which NATO played an enthusiastic and devastating part.
They paid vast sums of money (in their terms, though not by the standards of the EU) to board boats and instead of reaching a land where they could experience the most very basic of human living standards – peace and security – they drowned in a sea which is at the centre of the shared history and experience of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The European Union – by far the wealthiest and most powerful political bloc on that sea – held an emergency meeting yesterday (Monday 20th April). At its end, it announced it plans to ‘close migratory routes’ and ‘target traffickers’.
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly think that these proposals will work – or in what world they could be considered an acceptable or appropriate response to this particular international crisis.
On the subject of migratory routes, the EU’s foreign and security policy co-ordinator Federica Mogherina said the EU would ‘work with states including Niger, Egypt and Tunisia’ to close the routes people use to reach Libya.
At a first glance, there are five major problems with this plan.
First, Niger is currently incapable of producing enough food for its own population. It is remarkably ambitious to expect it to police and prevent people moving through it to reach Libya, particularly to benefit a far richer, distant bloc of European states.
Second, Egypt’s current President, General Sisi, is a lunatic dictator who shot his way to power and has jailed his political opponents. He is a strange choice of ally for the EU – a supposed champion of democracy and human rights. There must also be some serious concerns about what Sisi will do with these people when he apprehends them.
Third, Tunisia’s border with Libya has already proven porous enough for terrorists to cross from Libya to attack people in Tunis. How and why would Tunisia suddenly be better able to police it to solve a problem for the EU than to save its own citizens’ lives?
The fourth point is perhaps the most important in terms of cold pragmatism. Simply put, vast numbers of people never enter Egypt, Niger or Tunisia to get to Libya.
Of course, there are several good reasons why the EU will not and cannot pledge to work with the Sudanese government on this issue, but it is impossible to imagine a plan to prevent people migrating north from sub-Saharan Africa to the EU via Libya will succeed when the major route many use will remain completely unpoliced and open.
The wider point here is that it is simply impossible to prevent all migration – to stop people from moving from one place to another.
If we do wish to reduce migration – and in this case to prevent human beings risking their lives in unsafe boats on the open sea – we have to look at the reasons why they wish to escape from their homes, and work to help their lives improve in the countries of their birth (there is a message here for UK politicians, too).
The fifth concern is a little different. Let us pretend that somehow the EU managed to close every single escape route from war-torn, oppressive regimes, and those overrun by famine and treatable disease. Well, what then? What would the EU have achieved?
Arguably, it would have prevented death on the Mediterranean, but the cost of that arguable positive would be totally unjustifiable: forcing people to die of other causes – starvation, disease, under torturous ‘examination’ by corrupt regimes, or in wars they did not start and want no part in. In what way, other than the most selfish and inhuman, could that possibly be considered a success?
Mogherina did mention that the EU’s search and rescue response on the Mediterranean would increase. That’s a decent ‘firefighting’ response, which would have been a little more reassuring had she not also announced the meeting had ‘identified actions’ including ‘destroying ships’.*
*In case any of us in the UK feel inclined to use this as a stick with which to beat the EU, it’s worth noting that Lord Ashcroft of the Conservative Party – never a group to say something considered in measured tones when something extreme and foolish could be said in its place – argued that boats used to carry people from Libya ‘should be destroyed in their ports’.
Not only would this involve the EU invading other states’ ports and destroying boats moored there, we may like to consider that the majority of these vessels are fishing boats. So Ashcroft’s proposal is that the EU enters a war against trawlers in the ports of other nations.
(‘destroying ships’ is also unlikely to significantly improve the current situation. While it is reassuring to speak of ‘people traffickers’ when planning to unleash Destroyers against fishing boats – and while there is no doubt whatsoever that the people carried on the boats are terribly mistreated by those piloting the vessels – the people attempting to enter the EU are not kidnap victims: they are forced onto the boats by circumstance, not by slavers)
So what exactly is the EU’s plan? Is it to search for people to rescue from drowning, or for boats to blow up?
Unfortunately, the EU’s proposals show little understanding of the issues at hand.
They ignore the reasons why men women and children are so desperate to escape their home countries that they are willing to die in the attempt.
They sidestep the uncomfortable truth that Libya’s inability to take any action itself is because a civil war in which NATO took an enthusiastic and aggressive part has led to it becoming North Africa’s first failed state.
And they display a remarkable and alarming lack of commonsense, pragmatism or human feeling.
They aim not to improve lives, nor really to make serious effort to save them, but instead to prevent people getting close to the EU.
The people who have drowned attempting simply to reach a secure environment deserve to be remembered with dignity and respect.
They could be the inspiration for a committed EU programme to reduce the causes of suffering for millions of people, helping them live safely at home and rescuing those who cannot.
Instead, the European Union has emerged as if from a cave, clutching a half-brick.
Europe’s shame is not over. Instead, it has taken a new, even less excusable form.