With the refugee crisis threatening to unravel the European Union, some EU officials are banking on the art of the migrant deal to keep Europe’s immigration problem in check. That solution appears to be a band-aid, rather than a cure, and it is shifting the bleeding to other areas of Europe, as well as setting up the EU for blackmail.
In 2015, more than 1 million migrants entered Europe, most of whom used the Balkan route to reach western and northern European countries, particularly Germany. In March 2016, the EU reached a deal with Turkey in which Ankara agreed to take back migrants arriving at the Greek islands in exchange for Brussels relocating refugees directly from Turkey.
As the EU-Turkey deal came into place, Balkan states closed their borders at locations where migrants were crossing, and Europe sent patrol boats into the Aegean Sea to deter migrants from traveling to the Greek islands. After the deal took effect, migrant flows to the Greek islands plummeted. In 2016, 173,450 migrants arrived in Greece by sea, whereas more than 800,000 made the journey in 2015, according to United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
However, migrant flows across the Mediterranean from North Africa to primarily Italy increased in 2016. Migrant arrivals in Italy increased from about 150,000 in 2015 to about 180,000 in 2016. The migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy were coming from across Africa, primarily by way of Libya. The boat trip is very dangerous, and it has resulted in hundreds of recent deaths.
Now, the EU island nation Malta is pushing for a European migrant deal with Libya. Malta, which has a population of less than 450,000 people, lies between Libya to the south and Tunisia to the east and Italy to the north. While most migrants head for Italy and then other EU states, there are African migrants living in Malta, and many Maltese are wary of Africans pouring into their 122-square mile country.
Malta currently holds the rotating European Council presidency, which it acquired this month and will keep over the first half of 2017. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, calling for a Turkish-style migrant deal with Libya. Muscat wants EU boats patrolling waters outside Libya in conjunction with a Libyan coast guard.
In Libya, a UN-backed government is currently in power, but there are rival governments, as well as militias, vying for control of the country. Libya plunged into chaos following the toppling of its longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. In the years since Gaddafi’s death, smugglers have seized on the lucrative human trafficking market that has emerged.
Prior to his death, Gaddafi traveled to Rome in 2010 and threatened to turn Europe “black” with African migrants if Italy did not pay him 5 billion euros a year. Italy complied with Gaddafi’s blackmail, striking a deal with the Libyan ruler that essentially made him Europe’s gatekeeper. But, the deal fell apart when Gaddafi was killed in a western-backed revolution. The agreement was also found to be in violation of international law because of the conditions forced upon asylum seekers in Libya.
Last year, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Erdogan, acted in a similar fashion to Gaddafi when dealing with the EU on the migrant crisis. Erdogan, too, demanded billions of euros from the EU in exchange for slowing the flow of migrants to Europe. Brussels agreed to pay Ankara 3 billion euros, and possibly as much as 6 billion euros, for keeping migrants in Turkey. Brussels likewise agreed to speed up EU accession talks with Turkey — even though there is little support for Turkish membership in the bloc — and to expedite Turkish citizens’ visa-free travel to Europe’s Schengen Zone.
After striking the deal, Erdogan also turned to blackmail. The Turkish leader threatened to send busloads of refugees to the Greek and Bulgarian borders if the EU did not comply with its side of the deal, particularly granting visa-free travel. Erdogan issued the blackmail despite refusing to reform Turkey’s terror laws, a prerequisite for the visa liberalization, and despite launching a post-coup attempt purge that disturbed much of Europe.
If the EU strikes another migrant deal with Libya, Brussels could be setting itself up for more blackmail. If Gaddafi and Erdogan could get billions of euros for herding migrants, why can’t the current Libyan government or a successor Libyan government or any other regime along a migrant route demand the same?
There are numerous people across Africa, the Middle East and beyond who are desperate for a better life and are willing to climb many hurdles in order to reach Europe. Thus, new migrant routes keep emerging. Last year, some migrants actually traveled up to the Arctic and crossed into Finland from Russia. Many Africans were flying into Turkey, then traveling by boat to Greece in order to reach Europe. Following the EU-Turkey deal, the main route shifted to the Central Mediterranean. If another EU-Libya deal comes into effect, there could be floods of migrants trying to reach other EU territories in the Mediterranean by way of new smuggling routes. Some migrants are already going for Spain via Morocco.
Likewise, the Balkan route is still effectively open. Migrants, particularly from Afghanistan, have kept crossing into Bulgaria from Turkey after last year’s deal between Brussels and Ankara. Additionally, there are thousands of migrants who arrived in the Balkans previously and are still trying to navigate border closures in the aftermath of the EU-Turkey deal.
During his appearance in Strasbourg, Maltese premier Muscat stated correctly that there is no perfect solution to the migrant crisis. But, continuing to strike deals with authoritarian leaders and unstable governments will cause new problems to arise while trying to solve existing ones.
As with the initial Libya deal, courts could strike down new migrant agreements on human rights grounds. Libya today arguably does not meet the international standard of a safe country for asylum seekers.
Europe can deter migrants by fortifying its external land borders, like in southeastern Bulgaria, and increasing naval and coast guard patrols in the Mediterranean. Likewise, it can deter migrants by cutting the welfare benefits they receive. Many migrants journey to Europe with the expectation that a European government will provide them a home and/or a monthly stipend.
However, the EU does not have the military might to put an end to the fighting in war zones, like Syria and Afghanistan, and it does not have the resources to build up the numerous countries from which people are fleeing. With nationalism and populism on the rise, the migrant crisis will remain an existential threat to the EU in the foreseeable future.