Wasn’t there supposed to be a ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’…?

There can be no ‘rebuilding of trust’ between Member States, on this issue; still less anything even remotely resembling ‘confidence’ that the Commission does indeed have the ‘capacity to manage migration as a Union’

Reason I ask is… well, there doesn’t seem to be very much evidence for its existence at the moment, does there?

For instance: in the first two weeks of this month, Lampedusa received more than 2,000 asylum-seekers arriving by boat from North Africa. That figure amounts to roughly a third of the tiny island’s population: in other words, the equivalent of approximately 160,000 landing in Malta, in the space of just a fortnight.

Still, it remains a mere fraction of the number of asylum seekers to end up on Lampedusa – an island not even half the size of Gozo – each year. As the BBC reported just last week: “Almost 13,000 have landed in Italy so far this year; three times more than the same period in 2020. And more than 500 have died - a four-year high.”

And yes: I am fully aware that there is an inherent danger in reducing the complexity of immigration only to a matter of mere numbers. Each of those 2,000 asylum-seekers (and, even more so, the 500 who didn’t make it) would no doubt have harrowing tales to tell, of the unimaginable ordeal involved in travelling from their Sub-saharan countries of origin, all the way to their final destination.

They are stories we are all only too familiar with here in Malta: with my own ears, I have heard unspeakable descriptions of torture and human rights violations at the hands of human smugglers, or in the bowels of detention centres in places like Libya, and elsewhere. And that’s before those people even get bundled onto those rickety boats – in far greater numbers than the vessels can safely bear - to face the risk of dehydration, and ultimately death, on the high seas…

Even from a purely humanitarian perspective, however: the sheer volume of numbers only serves to exacerbate the human rights angle to this tragedy. It only lends further weight to that chilling quote, so often attributed (correctly, as far as I can tell) to Josef Stalin: ‘The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic…”

So make no mistake: what is happening in Lampedusa right now can only be described as a ‘crisis’, in every sense of the word. It is a human rights catastrophe; but also a logistical nightmare of the kind that we in Malta so often complain about ourselves… even if our own irregular immigration statistics are not even remotely comparable (or at least, not yet. Let’s face it, we may very well experience a similar influx tomorrow…)

But in a pattern of events that will surely sound familiar, the Italian government responded to this umpteenth crisis by once again appealing to the European Union for… yes, you guessed it… ‘solidarity’. And as the same BBC report goes on to say: “For now, it’s falling on deaf ears; Austria has already ruled out accepting any of the recent arrivals from Lampedusa…”

Which brings me back to the question I asked in the headline. As far as I remember, it was only eight months ago that the European Commission announced – with all the usual fanfare we have come to expect from that institution, over the years – that it had launched a ‘new pact on migration and asylum’: intended, among other things, to enshrine “the principles of fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity”.

This is how Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen actually made the announcement, on 23 September 2020:

“We are proposing today a European solution, to rebuild trust between Member States and to restore citizens’ confidence in our capacity to manage migration as a Union. The EU has already proven in other areas that it can take extraordinary steps to reconcile diverging perspectives. We have created a complex internal market, a common currency and an unprecedented recovery plan to rebuild our economies. It is now time to rise to the challenge to manage migration jointly, with the right balance between solidarity and responsibility…”

On her part, Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson added: “What we are proposing today will build” – please note, by the way, the sheer conviction implicit in the use of the future tense – “a long-term migration policy that can translate European values into practical management.  This set of proposals will mean” – once again, an emphatic prediction – “clear, fair and faster border procedures, so that people do not have to wait in limbo. It means enhanced cooperation with third countries for fast returns, more legal pathways and strong actions to fight human smugglers. Fundamentally it protects the right to seek asylum”.

As for the pact itself, it was supposed to guarantee precisely the same sort of solidarity that – surprise, surprise – is still nowhere to be seen, all these months later:

“Member States will be bound to act responsibly and in solidarity with one another. Each Member State, without any exception, must contribute in solidarity in times of stress, to help stabilize the overall system, support Member States under pressure and ensure that the Union fulfils its humanitarian obligations…”

Even at the time, it all sounded (to my ears, at any rate) like little more than glorified ‘wishful thinking’. At no point in any of those statements did the European Commission ever commit itself to any clear timeline for when this pact would actually come into force… still less were we given any assurances that the 27 member states would actually agree to sign on the dotted line.

It was a concern I myself put to Commissioner Johansson directly, in an interview published on 6 October 2020. I pointed out to her that “the success of this Pact also depends on co-operation from other EU member states. In the past, this has not been forthcoming.”

Yet her reply to the inevitable question – why should it be any different, this time round? – was to say the least vague:

“I think the proposal I have presented is a balanced proposal. It’s a compromise; and so far, I think there has been quite a constructive approach by all member states. They are ready to sit down and work on this; but of course there are going to be negotiations, in the Council as well as in the [European] Parliament.

“I don’t think they will say ‘Hooray!’ to everything; there will naturally be disagreements on certain issues. But I do very much believe that we will have a constructive discussion on this… and I haven’t seen the proposal being rejected by anybody yet…”

Well, that was just over seven months ago. Today, I reckon her answer would have to be slightly different. It is not just Austria that (as reported by the BBC) has now firmly rejected this ‘new migration and asylum pact”; Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – the so-called ‘V-4’ – have all likewise (and very predictably) put their foot down.

And this only forces us to reconsider the true significance of Von der Leyen’s earlier claims. Remember? That this imaginary pact was supposed to “rebuild trust between Member States and to restore citizens’ confidence in [the Commission’s] capacity to manage migration as a Union…”

In light of this new pact’s manifest failure to ever actually materialise, as promised… Von Der Leyen’s own words leave us with no option but to conclude that: no, actually. There can be no ‘rebuilding of trust’ between Member States, on this issue; and still less can there be anything even remotely resembling ‘confidence’ that the Commission does indeed have the ‘capacity to manage migration as a Union’.

The brutal truth is that… it doesn’t have that capacity at all. And we can now all see that, with our own two eyes. Like so many thousands of those unfortunate people, who attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing each year… the new pact on migration and asylum is very clearly ‘dead in the water’.

And I am sorry to have add that – for much the same reason - so, too, is the European Commission’s own credibility.