After the Lampedusa tragedy in October last year, in which more than 500 immigrants drowned, the Italian Navy launched a sophisticated programme of maritime rescue. The Mare Nostrum operation has facilitated the rescue of more than 100,000 people, five times more than were saved in 2013. The size of the figure is explained by the increasing number of conflicts in our neighbourhood (together with our inertia in these conflicts) from Libya to Iraq via Syria, but also in the Horn of Africa (Eritrea and Somalia), the Central African Republic, and Sudan.
As the Italian programme draws to a close, the European Union is preparing to replace it with its own operation called Triton. But last week we learned, courtesy of the British government, that the Mediterranean maritime rescue mission is a stimulus for irregular immigration, and so the Government of Her Majesty refuses to finance it. The impeccable logic of this argument must be recognised: the more dangerous the route to Europe, the more immigrants that drown, the fewer people that will dare to make the journey. Following the same logic, Spain should electrify the fences at Ceuta and Melilla, its cities on the north coast of Africa. True, the first immigrants that attempted to jump over them would be seriously injured, but there is no doubt that in the long term, the number of attempts to jump the fence would be reduced.
As the Italian programme draws to a close, the European Union is preparing to replace it with its own operation called Triton.
Irregular immigration should be fought in the origin countries, not only at sea, but the UK government, like all others, has been slashing development cooperation budgets. Worse, it has blocked the development of EU battle groups for places such as the Central African Republic, where they could stabilise the situation and prevent the displacement of people.
Something strange is afoot in the United Kingdom when a prime minister educated at the elite Eton College starts competing to be more populist than Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, who advocates the exit of the UK from the EU and rages openly against the hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian criminals that – due to the EU’s free movement of people – are supposedly terrorising the streets of Britain.
The British government’s stance on immigration is part of a wider trend. David Cameron’s party is considering withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, a step that not even Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has so far dared to take. The Conservatives argue that neither the UK’s judges nor its parliament should be forced to accept a higher authority, not even in the field of human rights. This sovereignty-based argument runs counter to international law, and sounds much like something that might be proposed by Putin himself.
The Mediterranean maritime rescue mission is a stimulus for irregular immigration, and so the Government of Her Majesty refuses to finance it.
In the past two weeks, we have also seen Cameron publicly incensed at the news that the UK should contribute more to the EU budget. But the increase in the contribution required from Britain is not due to some European grudge against London. It is the result of pure arithmetic and of the established rules of the game: the UK’s GDP has grown, the methodology for calculating contributions has been changed by agreement, and contributions are proportional – so London must pay more. Even so, Cameron says he will not pay.
There was a time when you could take it for granted that in any fight, the UK would come out on the side of liberalism, the rule of law, and openness to the world. But thanks to David Cameron, the UK is now increasingly being seen as an awkward partner, whose policies are worryingly divergent from the core values for which the EU stands.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.