Blog AnalysisBorders Immigration AsylumMediterranean sea

Get your head out of the sand!

Matteo Renzi, during the exceptional press conference on the shipwreck in the Mediterranean, Sun April 19, in Rome (credit: Italian PM)
Matteo Renzi, during the exceptional press conference on the shipwreck in the Mediterranean, Sun April 19, in Rome (credit: Italian PM)

(BRUSSELS2) Perhaps 700 deaths in a new shipwreck in the Mediterranean after the 400 deaths last Sunday (April 12) in the Strait of Sicily! The loud cries, the press releases, have been flying in all directions since this morning to demand more action, money for Frontex, European reaction, etc.

A predictable accident

The reaction is as strong as... the event was expected. The pressure of conflicts in the Mediterranean rim means that “ordinary” migration is supplemented by people fleeing conflicts. The trafficking networks benefit from the presence of a failed state (Libya) of a haven of peace to carry out all their trafficking. With the return of spring and good weather, there are numerous ship departures (*). And a sinking just as predictable on these boats, poorly maintained and fully loaded, as rushing down a highway, in the wrong direction, blindfolded!

The lost bet of waiting

The bet undertaken by the Europeans, since the start of Operation Triton, under the aegis of the European border control agency (Frontex, located in Warsaw), has been a commitment of the most limited possible means, to ensure a minimum of support and arrivals on the coasts. It is a fact. Furthermore, the Commission, the High Representative and the Member States wanted to give themselves as much time as possible to react: presentation of a strategy on immigration in mid-May; debate planned between the Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Affairs (jumbo meeting) in July, etc. A fairly classic mechanism for Europe: don't rush... The Europeans, however, seem to have their heads in the sand, forgetting some basic data, such as the weather which favors large numbers of departures in the spring, and the race against time, fundamental data in crisis management. The management of rescue at sea is not a legislative area, where you have to prepare well, refine a text, think before acting. It's the contrary. We must prepare to act as quickly as possible by quickly establishing principles of action and putting political leaders up against the wall, to avoid being caught behind. This has not been done. And Triton's bet is therefore lost.

A deliberate cynicism

This wait-and-see strategy is cynical and criminal. It is based on a foundation that no one in Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Stockholm will dare to clearly admit, but which corresponds to Real Politik at its most cynical, as someone familiar with maritime operations summed it up for me. “It is better for refugees to die at sea: 1. it is more of a deterrent than saving them; 2. It costs less politically and budgetarily.” This maxim has a drawback: it forgets the law of serial accidents. In a very cold way, we can say that 40 or 200 deaths from time to time are quickly forgotten. 2-3 disasters involving several hundred deaths, in quick succession, and the public opinion machine goes into overdrive. All the great strategies then collapse. And we feel obliged to act urgently, even if it means shaking up established codes. Italian ships are intervening today, urgently, where Frontex ships cannot do so. The ministerial meetings are brought forward as emotions rise. The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, with his Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, are calling for an emergency European summit to be convened. And everyone – including those who refused this solution yesterday – seems to approve of this necessity today. As a result, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, confirms that he is looking for a solution, etc. We are in a lose-lose strategy.

Fold your arms, count the dead, or act?

Faced with the Libyan tragedy, there are now only two possibilities: to fold our arms stoically and count the dead, or to act, quickly but above all multiple times. The action will involve a real risk, which will be as much operational as political: creating a breath of fresh air for migrants and refugees. But will it be greater than doing nothing? This is the whole question that is posed today to political leaders who must operate “on the fly”. To reduce this risk, we must act on a fundamental point: smugglers and human trafficking. Matteo Renzi’s point of view is the right one when he says that “ The problem is not the sea ​​control, but of destroy the smugglers, ce new slave traders of the XNUMXst century ". For that it is necessary commit significant resources, at several levels, to tracking down smugglers and traffickers, like what has been done to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean. Material resources are required: aerial (drones, maritime surveillance planes, etc.) and maritime (coast guards, military ships). Political and legal means are needed. Because it is necessary that this operation be carried out with the navies of the region (from Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon in particular). We finally have to “invent” a solution and following the best practices for Libya without waiting for a hypothetical government. A solution that could take advantage of the Somali antecedent. That is to say under the aegis of the UN.

A UN resolution and an agreement from… Russia

Control of the Libyan coasts can, in fact, only be done as closely as possible. This means that – as for Somalia – there needs to be a UN Security Council resolution allowing an international maritime force to control Libyan territorial waters. This requires obtaining the consent not only of the countries of the region but above all of a country in a position of veto in the Security Council, Russia, which has constantly repeated that it will no longer accept the reiteration of what happened in 2011 with the NATO operation (Unified Protector). We must, in concert with Moscow, promote, not an embargo, but police control of these coasts with an active search for smugglers and other traffickers. This maritime security force cannot be, directly or indirectly, commanded by NATO. It will either have to be placed under the aegis of the European Union or the UN. And here again, in order to acquire Russian consent, they will have to be directly or indirectly associated with the command of the operation (as they are in the anti-piracy operation).

The experience of fighting piracy

This anti-piracy operation is exemplary in more than one way. In the end, it was effective because the approach was gradual but also massive, with a whole range of means put in place — boats, planes, private guards, etc. — ; a particularly innovative judicial system - locally dedicated courts, legal agreements for the transfer of prisoners, and retransfer for the execution of the sentence -; an equally innovative system of coordination and involvement of the international community - whether through secure radio networks (Mercury), regular “deconfliction” meetings (Shade), the distribution of tasks between those who provided escorts, the interventions, more or less muscular, and the arrests -, and all the political and development work to gradually put a government and institutions back on their feet in Somalia.

Catch up

The Europeans - with their EUNAVFOR Atalanta operation and the other actions undertaken - have gained there, know-how and experience that it would be stupid not to use today in the Mediterranean. It would, in fact, be totally incomprehensible not to be able to do what we did in Somalia for Libya. Or it would be to consider that saving human lives is less important than the interests of deep-sea fishing and the merchant navy... We must make up for the time lost since last summer and the scheduled end of Operation Mare Nostrum , by working harder from now on.

The lure of control in countries of origin/transit

As for control in countries of origin and transit – which is on everyone's lips, in particular from the European Commission – this closely resembles a decoy. This means that we must very quickly find a solution to the inflation of conflicts – in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, and especially in Syria, which is hiding a maximum number of refugees. This would mean negotiating with Bashar for control of his borders. This would also require asking Lebanon or Turkey, which can no longer bear the refugees coming from Syria, to prevent them from leaving. This would also mean negotiating with closed countries like Eritrea, or Sudan, then finding a way to control areas that are difficult to control in Yemen, Somalia, northern Mali, northern Niger, northern Nigeria... In other words, lures!

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)


(*) A week ago, between Friday (April 10) and Tuesday (April 14), the Italian coast guards announced that they had rescued nearly 8 people in the Mediterranean!

Maj. 20.4 with quotes from Matteo Renzi and additional information on the fight in countries of origin and transit

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).