Interior ministers from 28 EU member states convened in Tallinn last week to discuss the migrant crisis. The ministerial gathering came at a time when the migrant flows from Africa to Europe are going through a seasonal summer spike.
Over 90% of the 101,000 people who travelled illegally across the Mediterranean so far this year, preferred the route connecting northern shores of Libya with southern Italy. More than 2,200 died along the way, according to Amnesty International. The human rights watchdog issued a damning report on the eve of the meeting in Tallinn, blaming "failing EU policies" for the soaring number of deaths among migrants. Amnesty says the European Union is ignoring abuses in Libyan detention centers, and is mostly leaving it up to the Red Cross/Red Crescent and sea rescue charities to save migrants.
The problem of "irregular arrivals", as the EU euphemistically terms them, is by no means new, but it reached its current alarming scale in 2015 when traffickers started exploiting post-Ghaddafi lawlessness in Libya to ship tens of thousands to Europe each year. The EU's first reaction was to strengthen search and rescue in the central Mediterranean. This helped save the lives of many of those who were setting sail in unseaworthy vessels, but failed to deter new waves of migrants. If anything, the reduced risk of dying at sea attracted even more people to make the journey.
The EU then decided to go to the root of the problem and shifted its focus to disrupting smugglers and preventing departures from Libya. The bloc poured money into Libya's completely dysfunctional coast guard to boost its capacity to stop traffickers sending boatloads of migrants out to sea to be rescued. Now Amnesty International says these "cynical deals" with Libya have consigned thousands to the risk of drowning and torture; there are serious allegations that Libyan coast guard officials are colluding with smugglers and abusing migrants.
It should be noted that, by contrast, relatively few take the obviously shorter - only eight nautical miles - and safer route between Morocco and Spain. Since the start of 2017, 6,464 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Spain, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The total in 2016 was just over 8,000 migrants, making up only 2% of the total of "irregular arrivals" to the EU. This may be attributed to both higher efficiency - and effectiveness - of Moroccan coast guards and the naval presence in nearby Gibraltar.
It therefore only seemed logical when the EU decided to carry on with this approach, prioritizing prevention over search and rescue. The action plan submitted by the European Commission for approval at the ministerial meeting in Tallinn envisaged allocating USD 92m to deal with the issue of human trafficking between Libya and Italy. Roughly $50m are earmarked to boost the capacity of the Libyan coast guard force and the rest shall be used to help Italy feed, house and process the migrants who get there. However sound the approach, the funds allotted to implement it are clearly insufficient. Critics say that it is an indication of the lacking political will to see the problem resolved, or at least reduced to its pre-2015 scale, among EU-28.
True to its founding principles, Amnesty International takes a totally different view, arguing that "the only sustainable and humane way to reduce the numbers risking such horrific journeys is to open more safe and legal routes for migrants and refugees". It's safe to say that such views do not go down well with many in Europe these days.
The vast majority of migrants coming to Europe via Italy and Spain are sub-Saharan Africans fleeing poverty or conflict in their home countries. Once they reach safely the northern shores of the Mediterranean, they are given medical attention, placed in brief police custody and then housed either in a migrant stay center or in accommodation provided by an NGO. Most of them ditch their documents and are often reluctant to reveal their true country of origin, especially if it has a repatriation agreement with Italy or Spain. As a result, very few of these migrants are sent back - most end up taking residence in the EU and living off welfare.
In an attempt to spread the extra financial and logistical burden more or less evenly, Brussels tried to negotiate national quotas for the number of migrants to be absorbed by each member state. This resulted in a bitter dispute between supranational EU authorities and the governments in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary over their refusal to accept refugees. The policy failed further when it turned out that many refugees relocated to the EU's poorer countries, such as the three Baltic states, end up moving elsewhere in Europe: in Germany accepted migrants are given an apartment and EUR 400 pocket money, while in e.g. Latvia the allowance is just EUR 139 a month - and no housing. The lower living standard makes refugees leave Latvia as soon as they get their new papers.
The worsening problem has put the European Union in front of a truly existential dilemma. Failure to cope with the migrant crisis will inevitably lead to an erosion of the hard-fought socio-economic equilibrium in the member countries (particularly the richer ones) in the near future. A serious crackdown on illegal migration, meanwhile, will most likely undermine the bloc's "soft power" lure, which the EU mainstream takes so much pride in. By contrast, the hitherto marginal groups, such as the Generation Identity, the fiercely anti-immigration and anti-Muslim movement originating in France and Austria, are recruiting new supporters in Italy, Spain and other countries where sympathy for migrants is wearing thin.
As long as the European Union remains divided on the issue, negative sentiments towards economic immigrants will only get stronger. Unchecked immigration has already become one of the key topics of this year's electoral campaign in Germany. Whatever the outcome of the poll there this fall, the post-election government's power base will be seriously diminished - at a time when exactly the opposite is needed to keep the European integration project afloat.