On 28 June, European Union leaders gathered in Malta for a summit specifically to come up with some policy or agreeable solution to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, particularly those coming from Libya, just a short flight away. So far this year, over 100,000 migrants and asylum seekers, mostly from Sub-Saharan African countries, have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety and a better life.
At the end of two days of marathon talks, EU leaders agreed on two measures: establishing asylum seeker processing centres, preferably outside the EU and thus easing the burden on Italy, the usual first point of entry for those coming out of Libya; and transferring more migrants to more EU members. Many EU countries including the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungry rejected both measures immediately.
In fact, the proposals are impractical and fall far short of offering even half a solution to the migration issue that is increasingly being viewed as a major threat to the EU itself. Member states know very well that they have very little chance of being implemented.
The idea of asylum seeker vetting centres beyond EU borders was first floated by French President Emmanuel Macron in July 2017 during a visit to a refugee shelter in Orléans. “The idea is to create hotspots to avoid people taking crazy risks when they’re not all eligible for asylum,” he explained. “We’ll go to them.”
He was referring to the risks faced by refugees in the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in flimsy vessels from Libya to Italy. This year alone more than 2,300 refugees have drowned on the way. Hotspots in Libya, for example, would work as centres to process applications for asylum seekers fleeing from their own countries. Successful applicants would be taken to France and other EU countries while those who are unsuccessful will be left behind or returned to their countries of origin. No practical programme was ever presented by Macron, though.
In fact, his idea never came to fruition for many reasons, not least because Libya’s internationally-recognised government in Tripoli rejected it. Human Rights Watch also cried foul, saying that keeping asylum seekers in Libya “carries the risk of human rights abuses.” Despite all of this, the EU summit in Malta was again presented with the same idea and adopted it; this is indicative of how desperate and divided EU politicians are on how best to handle the refugee flow. The whole idea of asylum seeker “hotspots” is simply unworkable, at least for now.
While the EU summit was taking place, the African Union’s own summit was in progress in Mauritania; it ended on 2 July. However, the summit’s decisions only mentioned the issue of refugees in the context of designating 2019 as the year of refugees and internally displaced people across the continent; the EU’s ideas were ignored completely. Although Emmanuel Macron hurried to attend the final AU session in Mauritania, he did not even discuss the asylum issue with his hosts. Two days later, he admitted that not a single African country had accepted the idea of centres or “hotspots” that his EU colleagues had signed up to. This suggests that the two blocs — the AU and the EU — lack any practical joint mechanisms to deal with the migration flow, particularly that coming out of Libya. This is to be expected; each side holds a different view of the problem.
Italy’s new right-wing government, elected on an openly anti-EU and anti-migration ticket, is increasingly distrustful of its EU partners, particularly on the issue of migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Libya. Being the first point of entry to the EU for all migrants crossing from Libya, Italy has been groaning under the burden of increasing numbers and has accused its partners of not doing enough to help.
Under such a government, Italy appears to prefer working with its former colony Libya as much as possible, while working with the EU only when it is deemed to be suitable to do so. This is one of the reasons why Rome has reactivated its 2008 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed with Tripoli back in 2008 during the Gaddafi era. As a NATO member, Italy had to suspend the treaty in order to participate in the military intervention in Libya in March 2011.
While compensating Libya for the brutal Italian colonial period from 1911 to 1945, the treaty has provisions for bilateral cooperation on illegal migration, including the supply of financial aid and technology, particularly that used for border security. The treaty also provides for bilateral security cooperation in fighting trans-border crime, including human trafficking and narcotics. More importantly for Rome, the treaty leaves more room for Italy to decide how to handle the refugee issue as long as Libya is in agreement, without worrying about what other EU members think. This gives Italy a leading role on deciding the overall EU policy towards Libya, which has been the subject of bitter competition between Italy and France lately.
Nevertheless, any EU attempts to at least stem the flow of migrants out of Libya will never succeed unless the EU and AU find a practical way of helping the source countries in Sub-Saharan Africa through investment that create jobs for potential economic refugees, who make up a large portion of the total number of migrants. Furthermore, they need to help Libya’s stability, as it has been more or less lawless since the 2011 NATO military intervention. The EU, led by France, made a huge strategic mistake in helping the rebels, including terrorist groups, to topple the former government of Muammar Gaddafi seven years ago, plunging the country into chaos and ongoing bloodshed. While many EU leaders have acknowledged the error in rushing to war in Libya in March 2011, they are yet to come up with any remedy for the consequences of their ill-judged move.
The EU must have a unified policy towards tackling the flow of migrants out of Libya, one which incorporates the AU focus on mechanisms that go beyond the traditional economic gifts to poor Sub-Saharan African countries. While international aid programmes are welcomed, the EU should look at Africa as a partner with great potential, both in terms of human capital and economic resources.
However, as the Malta summit exposed, the EU remains fragmented, and sometimes divided, over the most serious issues such as the flow of refugees. Poland and the Czech Republic, for example, refuse to accept any unified EU migration policy while Austria and Italy are becoming increasingly resistant to any EU-wide policies that involve admitting more refugees and asylum seekers. The fact remains, though, that the EU cannot tackle migration adequately without the African Union. Failure to acknowledge this means that summits and decisions taken therein are going nowhere in the foreseeable future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.