Rise of the hardliners in Europe migrant boat crisis

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) personnel aided rescued migrants this week on board an Italian coastguard ship following their transfer from the NGO-chartered ship Aquarius

Brussels (AFP) – Italy’s refusal to admit the migrant-packed Aquarius ship met little protest from other EU countries apart from France, which analysts see as a sign of how hardliners are now shaping solutions to the migration crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron denounced Rome’s “irresponsibility” but failed to sway a European Union now bent on protecting its external borders after years of division over the worst such crisis since World War II.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm in Brussels, limited itself to appeals for solidarity among the 28 member states and for humanity toward migrants adrift at sea.

Rome’s refusal to admit the Aquarius marks a “radical” departure from European attitudes five years ago, said Yves Pascouau, a researcher at Nantes University in France.

He recalled that in 2013, faced with a lack of response from its neighbours, Italy took the opposite approach by launching the humanitarian maritime mission Mare Nostrum.

“This change in Italy’s political landscape resembles what one sees in European countries in general,” Pascouau told AFP.

The Aquarius saga shows the “victory of more restrictive, harder positions” that favour locking EU borders.

– ‘Very divided’ –

The EU’s former communist countries in the east, like Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, have embraced such positions for years.

They have either completely opposed or resisted quotas that EU member countries endorsed in 2015, at the peak of the migration crisis, when more than 1.26 million people applied for asylum in the bloc.

But several other EU countries have since joined them.

The EU was early on “very divided between the east and west, but the situation has changed,” Elena Sanchez Montijano at the Spanish think tank CIDOB told AFP.

Sanchez pointed to the election successes of anti-migrant arguments in several countries, including in Italy and Austria where the extreme right has gained power.

She added that in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had opened the country up to refugees, today faces “a serious internal crisis” where her interior minister Horst Seehofer takes a hard line against her.

It is precisely with Seehofer and his Italian counterpart that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says he wants to build an “axis of the willing” against illegal migration.

Austria, which next month assumes the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, said it will focus on pursuing all steps needed to protect the bloc’s external borders.

Vienna also confirmed it is working with countries like Denmark on a plan that had been considered unlikely: building camps (dubbed “reception centres”) outside the EU to separate genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants.

“Even though the numbers of arrivals have dropped greatly, the political salience of the issue in a number of EU member states has increased,” said Stefan Lehne, an expert with Carnegie Europe.

Since the year began, only about 35,000 people have landed in Europe, mainly as a result of EU deals with Turkey and Libya, the main gateways to the bloc.

“As stoking fear of migration is a core element of their business model, (the populists) have every interest in preserving an atmosphere of insecurity,” Lehne told AFP.

– ‘Essentially dead’ –

In this political context, “there is only one possible consensus, which is ‘we will strengthen the external borders’,” Pascouau said.

“Everything else is no longer on the table,” he added, referring to years of bitter negotiations to reform the so-called Dublin system of asylum rules.

Under the current rules, the countries of first arrival are required to process asylum requests. Critics say that puts an unfair burden on Greece and Italy. 

But just two weeks before the self-imposed deadline of the June 28-29 EU summit in Brussels, EU countries remain deadlocked on how to relocate asylum seekers in the event of a new crisis.

“This Commission proposal is essentially dead,” Lehne said, adding that Italy’s new government and some others “see the best option” as preventing people reaching Europe.

Days before the Aquarius saga, Belgium’s hardline migration minister Theo Francken said he was “convinced that if all the doors were closed, all the countries would agree to show more solidarity.” 

And Pascouau said: “That’s what Italy did.”

Spain’s new Socialist government has since agreed to allow the Aquarius and its 629 migrants to dock in Valencia.