Leaked documents suggest that Europe’s high-profile meeting tomorrow to discuss its refugee crisis in the wake of the tragic drowning of 900-plus emigrants in the Mediterranean is likely to lead to nothing beyond a bureaucratic fudge. According to The Financial Times:
When EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday for a hastily-called summit to address the rash of migrant drownings in the Mediterranean, the most concrete “deliverable” is likely to be a pledge to “at least” double resources to the bloc’s two maritime operations along Europe’s southern coast.
According to a draft communiqué sent to national capitals late Wednesday, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here, the commitment to double the financial resources will go through 2016. But the text is a bit more unclear on what exactly the Triton and Poseidon missions’ mandate will be.
That’s not the only thing it’s unclear on. It dodges giving the Frontex patrols search-and rescue authority, discusses but does not order missions to destroy smuggling boats while they’re still in port, and puts off a 5,000 person pilot resettlement project—which would in any case be a drop in the bucket of the nearly 220,000 refugees who made the Mediterranean crossing last year.
So what explains Europe’s paralysis in the face of what almost every leader on the Continent now agrees is a major crisis? Several factors, some of Europe’s own making and others the increasingly common lot of all developed nations. For one thing, European law and the EU interpretation of an old UN agreement prohibits the returning of refugees to the port they came from. That puts Europe’s leaders in a position where picking up the refugees is equivalent to agreeing to accept all of them, but to do nothing means watching hundreds of people drown.
Europe is reluctant to accept them all, for reasons that go beyond general assimilation concerns. (Though those are significant—and Europe’s leaders are increasingly wary of stoking the nativist-populist parties springing up all over the Continent.) The EU’s unique supranational structures make it difficult to rationally plan to accommodate a large population inflow, as Gideon Rachman pointed out in the FT earlier this week:
Since politicians do not know the numbers of potential refugees involved, they cannot know what agreeing to take a “fair share” might ultimately involve. Free movement of people within the EU means that, even if refugees are settled in Bulgaria or Poland, there is nothing to stop them getting on the bus to Germany or France.
And tackling the “root sources” and “root causes” of the refugee problem are fiendishly difficult. Firstly, there is no government controlling the coast of Libya because Europe and America destroyed the last one—a foreign policy failure whose true dimensions even now are not fully appreciated.
Beyond that, the refugees are coming from as far away as Somalia and Eritrea. Conditions in countries such as that are so dire, and the contrast with the first world so stark, that the incentives to migrate even knowing the risks (which go beyond drowning—imagine what it takes to get from Somalia to Libya to begin with) will always be strong.
This is ultimately, as we’ve pointed out, a problem confronting rich and rich-ish countries all over the world, and one to which no great answers have emerged. Meanwhile, Europe’s legal situation is unlikely to change tomorrow and refugees are likely still to come: more tragedies most likely lie ahead.