Europe, still rudderless in the Arab world

The FT has an interesting piece today about the (still distant) possibility that the Schengen system, which allows for free passage throughout 25 of the EU's 27 member-states, might be dismantled. There's been rising concern about immigration in many European states for several years, but it partly has to do with the Arab spring. Specifically, with the drastic increase of Tunisian illegal migrants making to Lampedusa island, just off Tunisia but belong to Italy, in recent months. 

The EU tried to do away with such obstacles in its 1995 Schengen agreement for visa-free travel, which the bloc hails as one of its proudest achievements. Yet populist concerns about immigration, heightened by an economic crisis and the upheaval in north Africa, have given rise to new demands to strengthen internal and external borders across Europe.

Tensions have been highest in the EU’s Mediterranean member states, particularly France and Italy, to which most of an estimated 30,000 north African migrants have fled since January. Both countries have demanded the right to introduce temporary internal border controls. 

 Denmark also reinstated guards and spot checks this week along its borders. Although Denmark is far from north Africa, its populist Danish People’s party pressed for the border crackdown as part of wider negotiations with the coalition government on economic reforms.

The French and Italians have been fighting over this recently, as the FT reported last month, as they face pressure from the far-right (and pay the price of their own right-wing leaders — Berlusconi and Sarkozy — making anti-immigration rhetoric part and parcel of their political discourse.)

It's hardly surprising to see the French and Italians — among the most ruthlessly self-serving Western countries when it comes to foreign policy (they loved Qadhafi when he was powerful, and are now busy making deals with the rebels since he appeared weak) — resort to this talk. But that it strikes a deeper chord in the EU at large is telling. The EU has been grasping with positive symbolic responses to the Arab spring. Brussels has circulated a measly new plan for supporting civil society (some €10 million has been earmarked, a pitiful sum) in response, full of the usual technocratic language. But there has been no coherent political or diplomatic response, never mind a reassessment of the last decade of policy towards the likes of Ben Ali and Mubarak. This is despite a wide range of policy literature criticizing these policies from places like FRIDE or suggestions from recent reports like this one on EU policy towards Egypt.

Here's another expert who has scathing words:

Today, EU governments see the challenge primarily as one of demography. European governments may talk about democracy and practically every European leader has enjoyed a walk through the banner-clad Tahrir Square. But when they return home, shake the sand off their trousers and start thinking of their voters, their thoughts quickly turn to managing the flow of illegal immigrants who dream of a better life in Europe.

This is particularly true of the governments of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Spain. These "Club Med" states could, if they took advantage of their connections and understanding, be the driving force behind a constructive European policy towards the new north Africa. But in reality they have been driven by a fear of migrants and being outflanked politically on the right by their opponents (in France) or their partners (Italy). Back in the early 1990s, when the Balkans was ablaze, these countries were willing to take thousands of refugees. Today, France and Italy are locked in an argument about a much smaller numbers of Tunisians and threaten to tear down the Schengen agreement, which created Europe as a borderless area, in the process. This is against a backdrop of declining numbers of asylum applications across Europe over the past decade – in particular, UNHCR reports a drop of 33% in applications in southern EU member states between 2009 and 2010.

The concerns about migration that come with Club Med's historical connections and geographical proximity to north Africa have prevented EU policy from advancing. There has, in fact, been little substantive debate within these nations about their policies; Italy's first concern has been the thousands of immigrants arriving on Lampedusa while Spain's concerns include managing an already large Moroccan diaspora. The rest is rhetoric.

And in the meantime, from Brussels and most European capitals we mostly hear technocratic mumbo-jumbo. Yes, it's true the EU gives a lot of money to Arab countries like Morocco or Egypt. But the money is often wasted because there is no political discourse that accompanies it (unless it's from a few countries like Sweden, which however has little influence in the Middle East). It's not just a matter of conditionalities or policy orientation. The problem is bigger: it's a lack of moral imagination, an incapacity to think of the teeming hordes (as the politicians speak of them) beyond the Mediterranean as anything else than a problem.