Immigration to the EU on the rise, but relocation is dead – despite Italy having (temporarily) changed sides

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By Olivier Bault.

This article was originally published on Kurier.plus by the Felczak Institute of Polish–Hungarian Cooperation

European Union – Salvini has – at least for now – failed in his attempt to trigger new elections in Italy, which would almost certainly have enabled him to become the new prime minister in a right-wing government led by the League. The League’s leftist “anti-system” former partner, the Five Star Movement (M5S), has managed to secure a new coalition with the left-wing Democratic Party (PD) of former prime ministers Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni, as, in the face of opinion polls, both parties were eager to avoid new parliamentary elections at all costs. As a consequence, Italy flipped sides on the immigration front in September and decided, along with Malta, to support the new Franco-German relocation scheme. How long this second Conte government can last is another matter, particularly if illegal immigration keeps rising as it has since the reopening of Italian ports. Already there are tensions between the new coalition partners, as the M5S, in the light of the EU-28’s refusal to accept the Franco-German scheme and in view of the limitations imposed on the relocation scheme by France and Germany themselves, is resisting the PD’s calls for a return to even more lenient immigration policies. Meanwhile, immigration from Turkey is rising steeply in Greece, and the spectre of a new immigration crisis in the Balkans is looming, with the Turkish president threatening to send millions of refugees to Europe.

The new Franco-German relocation plan voted down in the Council

In July, just a few days after the EU-28 had failed to agree on a common plan at a Justice and Home Affairs council held in Helsinki, French President Emmanuel Macron announced, after an informal meeting in Paris of a “coalition of the willing”, that 14 EU countries, including the Franco-German duet, had agreed to participate in a new automatic relocation scheme that was to replace the failed EU compulsory relocation mechanism. However, only eight of those countries were said to have agreed to “actively” take part in the new relocation scheme, namely France, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Lithuania, Croatia and Ireland. The remaining six countries were not even named. At that stage, Italy and Malta had a competing plan which put emphasis on the protection of the EU’s external borders, instead of focusing on the relocation of asylum seekers rescued in the Mediterranean. At that time, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced preparations for a new meeting between the interior ministers of Germany, France, Italy and Malta in the Maltese capital Valletta in September. By the time that meeting took place on September 23, Italy already had a new government, and Matteo Salvini no longer held the position of interior minister and deputy prime minister. In Valletta, all four countries agreed – or so it seemed – on the Franco-German distribution scheme, by signing a “joint declaration of intent on a controlled emergency procedure – voluntary commitments by member states for a predictable temporary solidarity mechanism”. However, the French and Germans were adamant that the scheme should apply only to those illegal immigrants who stand a chance of gaining asylum. In other words, it was to apply to a minority of the illegals disembarking in Italian ports. Moreover, the Franco-German scheme only concerned those who are disembarked by European NGO or navy ships, not those who make their way to Europe by the means given to them by people smugglers, as some do for example between Tunisia and the Italian island of Lampedusa. Right after the meeting in Valletta, the Italian opposition was crying foul. To make things worse, just before it was to be presented to EU partners at the Council held in Luxembourg on October 8, the German interior minister, Horst Seehofer, warned that the scheme agreed on in Valletta would apply only as long as there was no excessive increase in illegal immigration. If the numbers were to increase sharply, Seehofer said, this new relocation scheme would have to be suspended, as its goal could not be to generate a pull factor. Such a suspension is indeed allowed under the last paragraph of the Valletta joint declaration, but by saying it aloud Seehofer infuriated his Italian partners and implicitly acknowledged the soundness of one of the main arguments against relocation advanced by the Visegrád Group (the V4: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) since 2015: a relocation scheme at EU level can become a pull factor for illegal immigration. In this context, the threats of financial sanctions made after the July meeting in Paris and again after the September meeting in Valletta by President Macron against countries which refused to participate in the “voluntary” Franco-German scheme did not sound too serious. And it seems they were not taken too seriously either at the October 8 meeting in Luxembourg, as only three other countries gave their active support to the scheme agreed on by Germany, France, Italy and Malta on September 23, namely Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal. Five other countries – Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – agreed in principle that they could take some migrants, but they did not accept the relocation being made automatic.

As for the others, the Visegrád Four along with Austria and Denmark maintained their stance against any type of relocation mechanism, while Finland, whose interior minister had taken part in the September 23 meeting in Valletta as Finland is heading the Council this semester, did not wish to make any commitments on quotas. Sweden considers itself exempted from the solidarity principle invoked by France, Germany, Italy and Malta, because of the number of immigrants it has already welcomed on its territory, and Spain takes the same position in view of the influx of immigrants into its territory from Morocco. On their part, Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus protested the Valletta agreement as it applied only to immigrants disembarking on the island of Malta or in Italy, and not to migrants coming to Europe from Turkey.

The Visegrád Group sticks firmly to its previous positions

At the Luxembourg Justice and Home Affairs council, Poland’s position remained that a common European policy should focus on the protection of external borders and on cooperation with the countries of origin of immigrants. Decisions on whether or not to welcome immigrants should be taken at the level of individual member states. Hungary’s position was similar. The Hungarian interior minister Sándor Pintér reminded his European partners that the real issue was to protect Europe’s external borders. Before the Luxembourg summit, the Fidesz party’s spokesman had warned that the EU’s migration quota system was a threat to EU member states and cities. Was this an exaggeration? Not if one takes into consideration the potential long-term consequences of immigration from outside Europe, in particular in the light of Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement – after a renowned journalist, author and commentator, Éric Zemmour, was heavily criticised for denouncing the “colonisation” and the “Islamisation” of France resulting from years of mass immigration – that France is experiencing “a form of separatism” from certain groups, but that one has to be careful with the words one uses if France is to avoid a “civil war”. The suggestion that a civil war could be looming in multicultural France is not new. Macron’s socialist predecessor, François Hollande, and Macron’s former socialist interior minister, Gérard Collomb, have also suggested that France is now coming very close to the point of no return. No wonder the Visegrád Four do not want to go down the same path!

And indeed, similarly to his Polish and Hungarian counterparts, the Czech interior minister said in Luxembourg that his country opposed the new Franco-German relocation scheme as it would incite more migrants to try and come illegally to Europe, which would in turn lead to ever rising quotas for member states. The Slovak interior minister’s stance did not differ from that of the other V4 countries: “We can help countries affected by migration, be it in detention camps or asylum centres, but we aren’t in favour of increasing migratory pressure, either via the Mediterranean route or through the Balkans.”

Illegal immigration on the rise – an Australia-style immigration policy urgently needed

In September, for the first time this year, the number of migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean was up compared with the same month of the previous year, with 2,499 arrivals in September 2019 in Italy vs. 947 in September 2018. For the period from January 1 to October 14, 2019, the overall numbers are still down, with 8,395 arrivals against 23,370 during the whole of 2018. This may change, however, now that NGO ships are back in the Central Mediterranean, Italian ports are open again, and the Conte II government has decided to withdraw its financial support to the Libyan government in Tripoli for its action against people smugglers and departures from Libyan shores. This cooperation with Tripoli was started by Gentiloni’s PD government in the summer of 2017, after the left had suffered heavy losses in local elections because of the issue of immigration.

After a catastrophic year in 2018, Spain’s socialist PM Pedro Sánchez decided to revert to the policy of his predecessor, the centre-right Mariano Rajoy, and in January 2019 pledged to cut illegal immigration by half this year. The Spanish government appears to be succeeding in honouring that pledge, with 24,508 arrivals (19,750 by sea, and 4,758 by land in the Spanish autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the north coast of Africa) from January 1 to October 13, 2019, compared with 65,383 for the whole of 2018. The methods used to achieve this include avoiding active patrolling of the Mediterranean coasts by Salvamento Marítimo, the Spanish search and rescue agency, preventing NGO ships from sailing in the area, and reinforcing cooperation with Morocco. The reopening of Italian ports, which Spain had also called for, should further help reduce the influx of illegal migrants to Spain, but unfortunately not to Europe as a whole.

In the meantime, Greece has again become the main entrance door to Europe, with 50,720 arrivals from January 1 to October 13, 2019, against 32,494 arrivals during the whole of 2018, throwing the Greek islands back into crisis. In recent months, Turkish leaders have repeatedly threatened to allow millions of migrants to get to Europe through Turkey. This means that the possibility of a repeat of the situation seen in 2015, when hundreds of thousands made their way north through the Balkans, cannot be ruled out. Already, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is putting pressure on his European partners to reinstate a relocation system with compulsory quotas, while also proposing that countries which refuse to take their share of migrants should face EU sanctions. Let us not forget, however, that, as the director of Frontex himself admitted in a statement to French senators in June 2016, the huge reduction in arrivals on the Eastern Mediterranean route in early 2016 was due to “the double effect of the closure of borders on the Balkan route and the enforcement from March 20 of the agreement between the EU and Turkey”. The closure of national borders in the Balkans was initiated in February 2016 by Austria, shortly before the March agreement with Turkey. The EU is now putting pressure on Turkey to keep this agreement in force, and Greece has pledged to speed up the processing of asylum applications while transferring some of the illegal immigrants to the mainland. Nonetheless, a scheme involving the relocation of a significant number of the migrants currently stuck in Greece would have a similar effect to reopening the borders on the Balkan route. As the Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri implicitly acknowledged in 2016, this would contribute to a new rise in migrant numbers on top of the surge caused by Ankara’s pulling out of the EU–Turkey agreement. The reason for this is simple: most migrants who land on the Greek islands or cross the Bulgarian land border with Turkey are heading north to countries such as Germany, Sweden, France or the UK. This is also true for many migrants who land in Italy from Libya, Tunisia or Algeria, or in Spain from Morocco. Just as in Italy, most of the illegal immigrants are not genuine refugees, but people coming in search of a better life. Greece is now dealing with “a problem of migration rather than a refugee problem”, the Greek government’s spokesman recently said.

While German interior minister Horst Seehofer is advocating for the relocation of illegal immigrants among EU countries to avoid a wave of arrivals greater than in 2015, the Hungarian PM has adopted a different approach, promising in an interview for Hír TV that Hungary would use force if necessary at its border fence to repel “these people [who] will arrive at Hungary’s southern border in huge masses” if Turkey does “open its gates” as it has repeatedly threatened to do: “If Turkey sets off further hundreds of thousands on top of this [on top of the 90,000 migrants already on the Balkan route], then we will need to use force to protect the Hungarian border and the Serbian–Hungarian frontier and I do not wish for anyone that we should need to resort to that.”

Just like in 2015, then, it is on the Eastern Mediterranean route that the situation is most unstable and could degenerate fast. The only common European policy that could work is one based not on relocating illegal immigrants, be they genuine asylum seekers or just economic migrants, but on methods of the kind used for Operation Sovereign Borders which have been successfully enforced by Australia since 2013, putting an end to illegal immigration by sea and deaths by drowning. This is something that has been advocated for years by both Polish and Hungarian leaders. However, it seems that not all in the EU genuinely want to put an end to illegal immigration from Africa and the Middle East.