Good afternoon. As the summer draws on, the European migrant crisis is flaring up again – and at the centre of it is Italy. The conflict over who bears the brunt of the wave of people fleeing Africa across the Mediterranean has implications for Britain’s exit deal.
Since the start of this year 83,650 people have reached Italy by sea, a 20 per cent increase from the same period in 2016. Many are put out there by people smugglers, who are so confident their customers will be rescued that they simply abandon them in the water, often removing their boats’ engines for later re-use. The migrants are picked up by rescue boats run by charities such as Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, then dropped off in Italy, where the Dublin Convention demands they seek asylum. But Italy can’t cope – many arrivals sleep rough and on Sunday an empty hotel in Brescia that had been earmarked as a hostel was attacked with petrol bombs. In local elections in June the ruling Democratic Party took a pasting from anti-immigration opponents.
In theory other EU countries are supposed to have taken 160,000 asylum seekers since 2015 to help relieve the pressure. Instead only 20,900 have been relocated. The EU is suing Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic for ignoring the agreement. Today Austria has even deployed armoured vehicles to its border with Italy in case of a large migrant flow (though see here for pictures of an old smuggling trail people are using to slip out nevertheless). Now, as I wrote yesterday, the Italians are threatening to close their ports unless they get more support from the rest of the EU. An offer of funding and increased aid to Africa will be discussed in Estonia on Thursday. It does not help that, according to the UN, 7 in 10 of those crossing the sea are not refugees per se but economic migrants, many of whom thought they could find a job in Libya and found instead a failed state.
What does this have to do with Britain? Potentially not much: we are exempt from the refugee-sharing agreement and we are leaving the EU. But the strife on the continent should remind us that the 27 remaining EU nations are not always as united as they seem. This is a union which contains both Germany, which famously threw open its borders to refugees in 2015, and Hungary, whose leaders believe it is fighting for its existence against radical Islam, and which will soon assume the chairmanship of the Visegrad Group (also comprising Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). These countries have very different views of what the EU is for.
It’s possible this will give Britain the opportunity to drive a wedge between its supposed tormentors. The Eastern European members have always been sceptical of “more Europe”, opposing further political integration and particularly any sharing of refugees. They are suspicious of any friendship which may emerge between Emmanuel Macron and the Germans (whether under Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz). But they are also very keen on freedom of movement and must be seen to be defending their citizens who live in the UK. “Newspapers in central and Eastern Europe covered the referendum with a sense of betrayal,” says Anand Menon, director of the think tank The UK in a Changing Europe.
That means the happiness of EU nations is very much our business. Mr Menon thinks that any EU nation which feels it has been taken for a ride by the others will be tempted to “engage in a spot of grandstanding” and reinforce its own importance by throwing a spanner into Brexit negotiations – for instance by insisting on the best possible rights for their citizens in the UK. Perhaps we could take some refugees as a gesture of goodwill?
Source: for MORE