EU solidarity abandoned on Mediterranean shores

In the face of the deaths of thousands of migrants, the response of EU states has been chaotic and disjointed at best. 

Susi Dennison
Director, European Power programme

Mogherini is a little over one week into her job. Countless pieces of advice have been launched at her from every angle on how to prioritise, and where she can make a difference. In an interview with the Guardian last week, she made clear she planned to depart from her predecessor Catherine Ashton’s approach of making her mark on the Balkans and Iran. Given the way the world has changed in 2014 with mounting Russian aggression and annexation of Crimea, the rules of the game have changed dramatically in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, and she has made clear that she will spend a considerable portion of her time there.

She also threw out a warning shot that it would be a test of her ability in her role as high representative for common foreign and security policy to bring meaning to the idea of a collective foreign policy.  As documented by ECFR’s Foreign Policy Scorecard over the last four years, if, in reality, member states are unwilling to put political capital behind a common foreign policy, then not only her role, but the EU’s whole ambition to be a global actor, is pretty toothless. She has tried to square up to this challenge, arguing that: “We have to be serious and consistent if we believe the European Union makes sense. I believe it makes sense. We have to be consistent and have a common attitude to the challenges around us.”

“We have to be serious and consistent if we believe the European Union makes sense. I believe it makes sense.”

Nowhere is it clearer that in fact the reverse is true than in tackling the immigration crisis to the south of her native Italy. In the face of the tragic deaths of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people the response of EU states and their citizens has been chaotic and disjointed at best, and with some notable exceptions, without compassion. The consistency which Mogherini calls for is nowhere to be seen, as Italy ends the year-long Mare Nostrum cross Mediterranean search and rescue programme, at a moment when instead we should be preparing for a surge in the movement of people trying to cross from North Africa in response to conflicts growing in intensity in Syria and Iraq, with the expansion of the Islamic State, and the US led airstrikes, as well as from those in Central and Western Africa and fear of the spread of Ebola. Mare Nostrum will be replaced by a far more limited border patrol operation, Triton, which will only cover waters close to the European coast. Responsibility for any vessels in trouble further out into the Mediterranean is explicitly being pushed back to the countries on the southern side of the Mediterranean.

Worse still, solidarity – one of the founding principles of the EU – not only with the migrants who have left behind lives so difficult that boarding unseaworthy boats headed for Europe seemed the preferable option in spite of the major risks, but also with the southern states of the EU who are bearing the brunt of this problem, is sadly lacking. The UK government’s slippery shoulders in deciding not to support future search and rescue operations have rightly caused outcry. The logic that just because there are a range of push factors, which lead to desperate people boarding boats in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the UK can simply shirk its humanitarian responsibility is sickening. But this doesn’t mean that other member states are without blame. Very little help financial help has been offered to Italy, Greece or other southern states in dealing with their position as jumping off points into Europe. No one has heeded Italy’s call to revisit the right of asylum seekers to apply from their home countries in an attempt to stem the flow of people trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Solidarity – one of the founding principles of the EU – is sadly lacking.

Of course European governments are not the only culprits in this heart-rending story.  There are myriad push factors that lead to individuals from across Africa and the Middle East trying to cross to Europe– from economic migrants seeking a better life to refugees who have lost everything in the wars raging in Syria and Northern Iraq. Beyond any doubt, the boat owners and captains making small fortunes from carrying people willing to risk everything in rickety vessels should have to answer for their actions in the courts.

No one suggests that committing to tackling this humanitarian crisis is easy either. It is a fiendishly complex, multi-faceted problem, and the major challenges really do begin at home, faced, as European governments are, with ever growing political support for parties who treat immigration as a faceless scourge, responsible for everything that is wrong with our economies and societies today. However, in this week of major anniversaries – the armistice that ended World War One; twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall – we should remember that none of the farsighted political decisions that have so shaped the world we live in were straightforward political calls. All required a leap of faith and the need to convince reluctant electorates that certain principles were worth sacrifice.

The EU cannot simply pass the buck in the face of over 3,000 lives lost in 2014 alone in the Mediterranean Sea.

The European Union, one of whose founding principles was to confirm ‘the solidarity which binds Europe and overseas countries’ cannot simply pass the buck in the face of over 3,000 lives lost in 2014 alone in the Mediterranean Sea. When responsibility can be consistently passed on from one member state to another; from foreign policy institutions to internal ministries; from security, to policing, to immigration, back to diplomats, in a matter, literally of life and death, the promise of solidarity rings very hollow and leaves us to question who, and what, the EU really is. It is certainly hugely damaging for our credibility as a union of values, when we seek to stand up for human rights and international norms elsewhere.

In this sense, respect is due to Mogherini for stepping up to the plate, and identifying the achievement of a genuinely common foreign and security policy as a personal challenge. But as long as the human tragedy is allowed to continue to unfold on our southern shores, her work will be far from done.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Susi Dennison
Director, European Power programme