African migrants stranded on a boat. Photo: Getty
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"Shameful consequences?": Europe contemplates Australian response to African migrants

Will the EU's contemplation of Australia's "solution" to the migration crisis, denying all those rescued at sea the right to settle, end in "shameful consequences"?

When European leaders meet today, they are contemplating a radical overall of the treatment of questions of refugees and migrants. A military approach, which envisages naval vessels halting the exodus from Africa, is being considered.

No longer will anyone – men, women or children – be able to set sail from Libya with any hope of finding sanctuary in Europe.

This was confirmed by the British Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, who told the Andrew Marr programme: “we have to break the link between rescuing people from the Mediterranean and settlement because they [the migrants and refugees] will keep coming if they think they will be settled.”

Fallon complained that smugglers are phoning the Italian coast guard in advance and informing that their human cargo is settling sail and where to find their vessel.

Until now, anyone rescued by naval vessels at sea has been transported to Italy or Greece and put ashore. Fallon and his European colleagues believe this must end.

The EU agenda for the meeting says consideration being given to:

  • relocation/resettlement
     
  • return/ readmission/reintegration
     
  • cooperation with countries of origin and transit policy

Human rights activists fear something much more dramatic is being considered.

There are real concerns that the distinction between economic migrants (who can be returned) from refugees (who must be given sanctuary under international law) will be maintained in terms of this new policy.

Médecins Sans Frontières has issued a statement warning of what it calls “the shameful consequences of EU member states ignoring their humanitarian duty”. MSF says that the European leaders have to “radically rethink their policies” so that they can offer “safe and legal ways for people to seek refuge and asylum in Europe”.

 

The Australian model

This new approach appears to mirror the Australian policy, which denies all those rescued at sea the right to settle in the country.

The Australians ensure that no one who attempts to arrive in the country without permission can remain. They are held in a series of offshore detention facilities on Nauru and Manus island.

If fully implemented this approach would mean establishing enclaves along the North African coast or detention centres in countries as diverse as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. There are suggestions of establishing a major holding centre in Italy.

The basis for the EU’s response was laid out in a 700-page plan, which has yet to be made public.

 

Refugees, not economic migrants

The recent media coverage of the situation in Calais, where thousands of Africans and Syrians are attempting to board lorries and cars to reach Britain, suggests that everyone is an economic migrant.

Amnesty International says this is simply incorrect.

Steven Symonds, Amnesty’s refugee expert, points to remarks by David Cameron earlier this month, when the Prime Minister accepted that this is not always the case. Cameron put down the flood of migrants to: “the combination of the failed states and criminal gangs in North Africa  driving desperate migrants across the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching our shores”.

“This is right,” says Symonds. “These people are being pushed – they have been driven from their homes and are not trying to come to Europe to find a land of milk and honey.”

Amnesty would like to see Britain joining other EU nations in accepting its share of refugees. But this is unlikely to happen.

The latest indication from the EU summit is that as few as 5,000 people will be accepted as refugees. The rest will simply be repatriated. How the EU will return thousands to a state with a human rights record as notorious as Eritrea has yet to be spelled out.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.