EU’s economic problems prevent a comprehensive immigration policy

EU’s economic problems prevent a comprehensive immigration policy

Capsizing boats full of asylum-seekers off the coasts of Italy and Malta have made headlines in Europe. Despite the loss of lives, the EU has not come up with a comprehensive solution to prevent such tragedies in the future. A stressed Europe faces yet another challenge with its migrant and asylum policy. 

Europe is already facing crises on several fronts. There is political instability in Italy and the Czech Republic, extremist parties’ influence is rising, and several countries are fighting against the effects of constantly rising debt. The conditions attached to the European Union’s financial bailouts of member states are causing great friction between states and the growing controversy surrounding the United States’ covert monitoring of European leaders exacerbate the situation even further.

In the face of these immediate problems, Europe is now forced to face a new reality. Shifting of focus from internal strife to challenges posed from the outside world, European migration policy is high on the agenda. While the asylum/migration situation affects several European states, Italy and Malta in particular are dealing with a barrage of undocumented migrants arriving in thousands from the shores of North Africa.

Centered on the Italian island of Lampedusa, only 70 miles from the Tunisian coast, the current controversy began in Misrata, Libya, where a boat full primarily of Eritrean and Somali migrants departed for Lampedusa. The voyage ended in tragic fashion when the boat carrying roughly 500 asylum-seekers capsized less than a kilometer off of the island’s coast. The cause of the capsizing was a fire that was lit by some of the passengers to flag down passing ships after the migrants’ boat engine stopped working. As a result, about 339 migrants drowned before they could be saved by Italian coastal patrols. The shockingly high number of casualties from the accident echoed throughout Europe as Italy declared a national day of mourning and carried out rescue and recovery efforts.

As the only country in this region with all of its territory close to Africa, tiny Malta has not been spared the burden of dealing with the migration crisis on the doorstep of Europe either. On October 11, yet another migrant boat capsized on its way to Italy. As the accident occurred within the search-and-rescue jurisdiction of Malta, the Maltese government dispatched its own aircraft to monitor the situation and rescued 150 survivors. Following help from Italy, a total of 221 were eventually rescued. The Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, reported 27 casualties, including children. Muscat also traveled to nearby Libya and urged its government to cooperate in alleviating the strain on Maltese and Italian resources. But there remains the fear that Europe is allowing “the Mediterranean to become a cemetery.”

Italian authorities at all levels, from the mayor of Lampedusa and Prime Minister Enrico Letta have continued to stress that the migration problem is a European issue, not just an Italian one. Giusi Nicolini, the island’s mayor has been quite vocal about the issue in the face of angry constituents and has pointedly asserted that “… Lampedusa is too tiny to be Europe’s frontier.” The EU has given €30 million to ease the burden on Italy’s strained financial resources. But aside from this, the European Council’s reaction has been tragically reactionary. There have been expressions of deep sadness at its summit from October 24-25 and promises to address the issue. The most promising step, so far, has been the European Parliament’s approval of a plan to create a border surveillance system called Eurosure in the Mediterranean region, though this hardly solves the immigration problem.

From a European strategic and political standpoint, the large numbers of migrants landing in southern Europe is yet another potential cause of further tension among EU members. But ultimately, it is not at the top of the agenda. With constant strife over improving ties with relatively unstable countries like Ukraine and Georgia, the uncertain future of the United Kingdom’s membership status, and persistent financial instability, the European Union is seeing its capabilities and flagging unity stretched like never before. The economy will most likely continue to be the issue that dominates the European agenda in the near future, although that topic has been eclipsed as of late by the intelligence rift with the United States.

European states, with largely fragile, albeit slowly recovering, economies and the domestic issues faced by their publicly embarrassed leaders, are unlikely to make dramatic changes to migration and asylum policy, at least not very quickly. The migration issue, and Italy, will have to wait.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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