Global Policy Forum

Europe: On the Wrong Side of History

Europe is struggling with the issue of immigration. Latest estimates from EU agencies claim that around 900,000 illegal migrants enter the EU every year, many from North Africa, a trend which is set to increase with the current political instability and revolutions occurring throughout the Middle East. This article address how EU concerns over national interests and immigration have severely influenced European involvement in the Arab uprisings.

By Stephen Castle
March 23, 2011

Since the very start, Europe has been on the wrong side of the Arab uprisings. Just last year, Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister, dismissed critics of Colonel Gaddafi as "people who know nothing at all, either about foreign policy or Italy's interests." France's foreign minister, Michèle Alliot Marie, has since been sacked over her winter vacation in the Tunisian sun, her links to the country's deposed leadership and her offer to help it with French expertise in crowd control. Silvio Berlusconi praised Egypt's Hosni Mubarak only days before he was ousted from power-and the crisis has reminded us, courtesy of the television archives, just how well Tony Blair managed to get on with Gaddafi. Why have Europeans, who love to tout their commitment to democracy and liberal values, spent decades kowtowing to dictators?

For the most part, national interests have taken precedent. France's mindset owes much to its desire to retain a Francophone sphere of interest in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. It was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who launched the EU's botched initiative, the Union for the Mediterranean, in 2008. Until Berlin put its foot down, Sarkozy's idea was that only southern European countries should take part in the new union with their Mediterranean neighbours-with the political leadership coming from Paris, of course.

Money, as well as influence, has talked with Europeans. As another former colonial power, Italy, staked big money in Libya and vice versa. Through the Libyan Investment Authority and its Central Bank, Libya owned 7.6 per cent of the Italian bank Unicredit, while Libyan investors had stakes in Finmecchanica and Fiat and owned 7.5 per cent of Juventus football club.

Britain, too, has financial interests in energy-rich Libya-hence the questions about whether the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, was connected to BP's deals Libya? Geopolitical-as well as oil-considerations have also weighed on the minds of European leaders, and Egypt's engagement with Israel guaranteed Mubarak a friendly reception in western European capitals. Gaddafi's hostility to al Qaeda at least made him our enemy's enemy if not our friend.

But most of all, Europeans have craved stability because of the thing that spooks politicians as much-if not more-than the threat of terrorism: immigration. The latest estimates from EU agencies suggest that around 900,000 illegal migrants enter the EU each year. According to Eurostat, Algerians account for some 16 percent of all non-European immigrants in France, while Moroccans make up a further 13 percent. In Belgium, Moroccans make up some 12 percent of all immigrants; in Spain the figure is 10 percent.

During last year's election in Britain the issue featured prominently, and the immigration cap promised by the Conservatives election comes into force on 6 April. In elections across Europe, meanwhile, anti-immigration parties have been steadily picking up votes over recent years. This has made the ancien regime of the Arab world central to Europe's efforts to stem a politically-combustible influx of migrants.

Italy, whose island of Lampedusa lies in the front line, began cooperating with the Libyan government more than a decade ago and 2008 saw the completion of the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italy and Libya (commonly known as the "Friendship Pact"). In exchange for Libya's cooperation in stopping migrants, Italy agreed to pay a total of $5bn spread over 25 years-technically as compensation for abuses during Italy's 32-year colonial rule of Libya.

But it wasn't just Italy that saw north Africa in this way. In 2003, at EU summit in Greece, Blair pushed the idea of setting up special camps to process asylum applications in countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, and Libya. The plan, which was shelved after protests, was also backed by another country many miles from the Mediterranean but with a sensitivity to immigration: Denmark.

There has been consistent pressure on countries like Morocco and Algeria to sign readmission agreements, under which countries agree to take back failed asylum seekers. Though deals at the EU level have been elusive, big member states including Britain and Spain have struck bilateral agreements with Magreb nations.

So it is no coincidence that, when European leaders offered rhetorical support for the protesters in Libya in February, Gaddafi played what he considered his trump card. If Europeans didn't stop encouraging the uprising, he said, then Libya would unleash a tide of migrants. Although by then his forces had lost control of much of Libya's frontier-making his threat an empty one-it still had a psychological impact. Both Italy and Malta consistently sought to tone down EU declarations critical of Gaddafi.

As the fighting continues in Libya, however, the realisation is finally dawning on Europeans that the only way to prevent mass migration is to invest large sums in the region, so people there don't need to leave to lead a reasonable life. As Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg argued early in March: "Citizens of these North African countries-and migrants making their way through them-are not going to stay put in North Africa if there are few economic opportunities there: they are going to make their way to Europe through one means or another."

But until now such thinking was simply unheard of. The policy was simply to prop up dictators so long as they policed their frontiers. On his trip to Rome last year Gaddafi suggested that the EU should pay €5bn to secure his cooperation on immigration (an idea Foreign Minister Frattini said should be discussed by the EU). Europeans, Gaddafi seemed to be saying, were avoiding their migration nightmare on the cheap. In more democratic but less stable times, the price can only rise.


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