The EU and the Migrant Crisis: Not Much More Than a Point Defense

Street Art "Boat People"
Teaser Image Caption
Street Art

At the southern border of “Fortress Europe”, the Mediterranean has turned into a graveyard. The current migrant crisis in Europe is about more than a risk to the EU’s reputation. It strikes at the core of the EU’s founding values. A continuation of its half-hearted response to the migration crisis is out of question.

Political bickering aside, there will be no blueprint solution or an easy fix. Common sense demands to alleviate the underlying causes of the migrant crisis. But spelling out what this actually means suggests that it would take nothing short of mitigating the wars in Europe’s neighborhood, ending domestic political repression and fighting extreme poverty to stop people from leaving their homelands in search of a safe haven in Europe. A clear-eyed assessment of past examples of interventionist foreign policies, however, suggests that the EU’s ability to shape its neighborhood is limited. Nonetheless, the EU will have to step up its game and develop a more united, proactive and holistic foreign policy to manage the migrant crisis while remaining true to its values.

The limits of military responses to untraditional challenges

If addressing the “root causes” of the migrant crisis will be a long and daunting effort, and we cannot afford to wait a decade for developments to take a better turn in Europe’s neighborhood, how should the EU respond? The search for a long-term strategy to stabilize Europe’s neighborhood has to be accompanied by immediate steps to end the carnage at sea. By definition, any short term measures will be imperfect. The recent decision taken by the EU’s foreign and defense ministers to destroy the migrant trafficking networks in North Africa by military means, however, is utterly misguided. This inept response serves as a symbol for the helplessness with which Europe reacts to untraditional, cross-national challenges, including new forms of asymmetrical or hybrid warfare.  

On May 18, the EU foreign affairs and defense ministers announced Operation Naval Force in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med). Its stated goal is to disrupt the “business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks” in the central Southern Mediterranean region. To do so, the mission aims to identify and capture the vessels and assets used by migrant smugglers. Despite many open questions on how this will be achieved, Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy have committed themselves to contributing to EUNAVFOR Med’s realization.

Smuggler networks – a military target?

Deploying military measures to stop the boats from reaching European shores not only suggests that migrants pose a “security threat”; it also lacks any operational rationale. Most of the smuggler networks do not communicate or act in clearly defined command structures or logistical hubs, whose infrastructure could be destroyed by military means. Smuggling is highly decentralized and relies on fluid and corrupt networks, which quickly adapt their activities to the counter-measures taken by the EU or its individual member states. In addition, rather than following one single pattern, the routes and “services“ offered by the smugglers do not follow one model but differ according to particular migrant groups. Moreover, many of the smuggler boats are difficult to distinguish from simple fishermen’s boats and will be easily replaceable if destroyed. How, one is tempted to ask, does the EU even define the success of such a mission?

Libya- a failed state in Europe’s backyard

In order to prevent the smugglers from sending their boats into international waters, EUNAVFOR Med will have to invade Libya’s territorial waters. Last year, roughly 170,000 people fled from Libya to Italy via the central Mediterranean route. In its initial reaction to the EU’s plans to destroy the smugglers networks, however, Libya’s internationally recognized government withheld its consent for any operation in its waters or on its soil. To complicate matters even further, Libya currently has both an internationally recognized government and a rebel-led authority competing for power, with neither of the two controlling the whole of its country’s territory. Any military intervention in Libyan territory will face enormous challenges under these circumstances.

One way to circumvent the authorization of the Libyan authorities is a UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate, which EU High Representative Federica Mogherini has lobbied to secure. Where Russia and China stand on this issue, is far from certain, especially after the Libya intervention in 2011, which both Russia and China criticized in retrospect for having overstepped its mandate. Under the UN Charter, the UNSC will grant a mandate under Chapter VII in case of a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”. Stretching this definition to include combating smuggler’s networks is a slippery slope, which should not be taken lightly.

The need for a proper search-and-rescue-mission

In addition to creating EUNAVFOR Med, the EU has recently tripled its resources for Triton, the current EU-led maritime border security mission. While additional funding dedicated to the EU’s rescue mission is certainly in order, Triton’s mandate is first and foremost to secure and fortify Europe’s borders. Mare Nostrum, a larger-scale Italian-led operation with the explicit mission to save lives, was terminated in October 2014 due to insufficient EU funding, despite having saved thousands of lives.

Opposing the extension of Mare Nostrum’s mandate, some European politicians have argued that the mission’s patrols merely led traffickers to change their calculation and adopt even riskier policies. Indeed, smugglers have increasingly overcrowded their boats and only provided migrants with scarce food and water, reckoning that the vessels would be found by the Italian Navy relatively close to the Libyan coast. Arguing that rescuing migrants merely encourages others to embark on the journey is a cynical argument, however. Evidently, the drowning of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean has not had a deterring effect so far. Even if there was a causal relationship between the number of lives saved and the future number of migrants embarking on the journey, the European Union should live up to its founding values and its respect for human life rather than choosing the policy deemed more beneficial on the balance sheet. Going beyond the moral obligation, moreover, the EU needs to honor its commitment to international law, which requires it to accept refugees and asylum seekers until their case is duly processed.

A litmus test for European solidarity

Long overdue, the EU is currently making a renewed attempt at reforming the system according to which migrants and refugees are distributed within Europe. For the most part, European solidarity between the member states regarding the inclusion of refugees and migrants has so far been lacking. While merely a pilot project, the EU Commission’s recent proposal to resettle 40,000 refugees in two years from Italy and Greece to other EU member states is a step in the right direction. In an attempt to reform the much criticized Dublin Agreement, which requires a migrant or asylum seeker to remain in the in the EU country he/she first set foot on until his/her case is processed, the Commission’s newly suggested distribution system is based on national economic performance, population size and the unemployment rate.

Under the Commission’s proposal, Germany would have to take in roughly 18 percent of the 40,000 refugees. Second to Germany would be France with approximately 14 percent. In addition, 20,000 people who currently live in refugee camps outside of the EU are supposed to be distributed according to the same formula. Hours after the proposal was presented, however, France, Spain, Hungary, Portugal, the Check Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia voiced their opposition. In addition, the UK, Ireland and Denmark are likely to make use of the opt-out clause to circumvent their participation in the vote. Unless some of the countries listed above change their positions, a qualified majority vote in the European Council is likely to fail.

These discussions among European member states do not take place in a political vacuum, of course. Popular nationalist movements have sprung up across the continent to exploit simmering fears of economic decline and cultural insecurity. In order to prevent any further polarization within the European Union, national governments will have to stand up to domestic pressures and appeal to their population to show solidarity with the EU’s southern members, some of which are at the brink of their ability to cope with the number of incoming migrants.

Towards a holistic strategy

Even under the best case scenario, however, Europe is in for the long haul. A holistic response to the migrant crisis will have to be multi-faceted, consisting of a range of economic, political and law enforcement measures. These tools should be incorporated in a sensible shorter-term strategy, ranging from drastically increasing legal opportunities for migrants and asylum seekers entering Europe, thereby disrupting the smugglers’ business model; increasing rescue and protection missions; stepping up communication campaigns warning of the risks of trafficking; investing in capacity building of partner countries to engage in legal reform to outlaw migrant smuggling and provide law enforcement; and in some cases facilitating returns.

For longer-term solutions, which nevertheless need to begin as soon as possible, the EU needs to step up its political engagement with countries of origin and transit. Paying third countries to build border fences or disrupt smuggler networks will not be enough. While certainly part of the puzzle, traditional development assistance targeted at mitigating poor economic conditions will not suffice either. Most importantly, the EU cannot sit by idly while a failed state erupts in its southern neighborhood.

Particularly against the background of the 2011 military intervention in Libya, which was largely led by France and the UK before merging into NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, Europe needs to step up its responsibility for the country’s stabilization. Despite tight budgets and little appetite for a large-scale engagement in another country’s civil war, the EU needs to prioritize facilitating the process of national reconciliation and institution building in Libya. Lessons of state-building from Afghanistan and Iraq are not encouraging, and it will be important for Europe to develop realistic expectations of possible achievements, the need for strategic persistence, and the risk of relapse. But the alternative to seriously investing in the stabilization of Libya is grim, and the problem is unlikely to take care of itself over time.

A note of caution is in order here: even if the EU and its international partners are successful in rebuilding Libya, thereby mitigating the ability of migrant smugglers to operate in quasi-lawless territory, more Syrians can be expected to cross from Turkey into Greece and Bulgaria. This trend is already under way. At the epicenter of the mayhem in the Middle East lie the war in Syria and the sectarian violence in Iraq. While no end to the war in Syria and Iraq is in sight, the EU is highly divided about how much and what it can do to mitigate these conflicts. At the very least, however, it is in Europe’s interest to assist the neighboring counties which are baring the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe.

New challenges, old formulas

The inept European response to the migrant crisis serves as a symbol for the helplessness with which Europe reacts to a range of cross-national challenges that cannot be managed by traditional politics. At the heart of the matter lies a daunting question: How can the EU show leadership when its populace is increasingly turning inward, economic resources are limited, solidarity between the member states is low, and the Union is faced with a neighborhood characterized by weak institutions and failing states?

The list of examples of the EU’s failure to provide leadership in dealing with challenges of the 21st century is long and diverse. It includes Putin’s hybrid war in Ukraine, ecological and social impacts of climate change, and managing the flow of migrants. Fortress Europe will not hold if we fail to understand the interconnectedness of the “issues abroad” and our “issues at home”. It will take creative leadership, international cooperation and political will-building at home to develop new formulas to address these issues. Using a band-aid fix like EUNAVFOR Med rather than addressing the challenge in all its complexity will merely remain a point defense.