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The Guardian | 11.06.2018

Human rights and international law had been abandoned in the name of security long before Italy’s populists rejected the Aquarius

Daniel Howden

The standoff over a boatload of men, women and children rescued in the Mediterranean encapsulates the morass of Europe’s migration policy so neatly that it is almost redundant to call it a metaphor.

Some 629 refugees and migrants were left adrift in international waters while European Union member states competed to sound more resolute in their refusal of a safe port. It was left to Spain to intervene as supplies began to run out aboard the rescue ship, the Aquarius, one of the handful of charity boats still operating despite their routine harassment by the EU-backed Libyan coastguard. Meanwhile, Italy and Malta sniped at each other on social media, as policy was made in the form of hashtags such as “we’re shutting our ports”. Germany was too busy to comment as its leaders sound off over tougher asylum laws in response to the grisly murder of a teenage girl.

Watching on the sidelines the UN refugee agency asked meekly if Europe’s politicians could disembark the people in need aboard the Aquarius first and sort out their differences later.

The starting point in understanding this mess should be to ask why Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has picked a fight over the Aquarius now.

Migration policy watchers will be tempted to think that this is a public play to strengthen Italy’s position ahead of an end of June deadline to reform parts of the EU’s maddeningly complex asylum system. In this reading, Salvini is seeking an overhaul of the so-called Dublin regulations to ease the burden on frontline states such as Italy and Greece and remove the obligation for new arrivals to seek asylum in their country of first arrival.

This interpretation would be both reassuring and completely wrong. This is not about the incremental advance of national interests.

Where European observers had expected Italy to pick a fight with the EU over the single currency, its interior minister has gone straight for migration. Salvini understands, just as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Sebastian Kurz in Austria do, that the EU has no response. Italy has been left alone to deal with sea arrivals from north Africa and talks over new Dublin regulations will not change this. There is no solidarity on asylum and migration.

Salvini has blocked the Aquarius because this is the terrain on which he wins regardless of the outcome. The leader of the far-right Northern League built a campaign around promises of mass deportations of migrants. The fact that his proposals were and are impracticable and illegal did not prevent the League from gaining a 17% share of the vote.

Salvini’s bombastic claims that African migrants are turning Italy into a giant refugee camp ignore the fact that sea arrivals so far this year have dropped to one-fifth of the level during the same period last year.

No matter, rhetorical battles over migration allow him to pose as the senior coalition partner and defender of Italic.

EU migration policy, particularly since the record inflows in 2015, has been built on the idea that controlling sea arrivals would shore up Europe’s political centre. Human rights and international law could be subordinated to the need for control even if this meant co-opting Libyan militias, paying smugglers to act as coastguards or redirecting development aid to corrupt African regimes in return for trapping Africans on the move.

European voters, the reasoning went, would forgive rights abuses in far-away places in return for harder borders. In its simplest formulation, EU policy-makers framed the choice as one between allowing moderates to talk like Salvini or getting Salvini himself.

Critics of this policy consensus were dismissed as naive.

Its arch practitioner was Italy’s previous interior minister Marco Minniti, who delivered a huge reduction in sea arrivals through a series of shady deals in Libya that turned smugglers and traffickers into Europe’s paid gatekeepers.

Before the votes were counted in Italy the “Minniti plan” had many admirers in Europe’s capitals and on the European commission, the bloc’s executive body. Since the man himself and his party were swept out of power it has become painfully apparent that there is no electoral dividend for centrists who endorse anti-migration populism.

Over the weekend Minniti and his former government colleagues hit out at Salvini’s refusal of a safe port to the Aquarius and boasted of the balance they had struck between “security” and “reception” – in other words between the deterrence of migration and the humane treatment of those who somehow slipped through. They are still missing the point.

By treating migration policy as an arena of crisis where human rights and international law could be discarded in the rush to respond to a perceived panic, Minniti and his supporters in Brussels and Berlin were the midwives of Salvinism.

It has been left to the mayors of southern Italy to defy their own government and publicly offer the Aquarius a safe port. Often the strongest rebuttal to the populists comes not from the tainted centre but from Europeans in the areas most affected by the actual movement of people.

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