EU’s political survival means ignominy of taking ‘Guantanamo’ option

Finian Cunningham is an award-winning journalist. For over 25 years, he worked as a sub-editor and writer for The Mirror, Irish Times, Irish Independent and Britain's Independent, among others.

25 Jun, 2018 15:25

The migration crisis is again inflaming EU political divisions, raising fears about the survival of the 28-member bloc. A desperate situation is prompting desperate measures that will tarnish the notion of ‘European values.’

The political threat lies at the heart of the European Union. If German Chancellor Angela Merkel – leader of the bloc’s strongest member – cannot find a solution to the immigration problem, then her coalition government is doomed. The collapse in Berlin will in turn reverberate across the EU, unleashing yet more tensions between the EU establishment in Brussels and the newer populist governments.

At a mini-summit in Brussels at the weekend – prefiguring a full summit later this week between EU leaders – Merkel was given notice that there would be no compromize between two diametrically opposed positions.

Italy’s new populist government has warned that it wants a radical overhaul in EU asylum rules whereby member states accede to a fairer distribution of refugees. However, that position is an anathema to Merkel’s coalition partners in the Christian Social Union.

The CSU interior minister Horst Seehofer has made clear that he wants to return all asylum seekers at the German border to the EU country where they first arrived. That inevitably means Italy which is a frontline state on the migration route from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe. The CSU has threatened to collapse the government in Berlin if Merkel does not find a solution.

Given the intransigent refusal by Italy to continue receiving migrant ships from the Mediterranean and Rome’s demand for greater EU burden-sharing that means Merkel is stuck between a rock and hard place. Her CSU coalition partner and other EU states, in particular the Visegrad Group of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, are adamant about not receiving immigrants. So, what gives?

This is where Merkel and the EU’s dilemma may embrace the plan to set up “processing centers” or “disembarkation zones” in countries outside Europe where would-be migrants would have their applications for asylum vetted. Such a plan would entail the setting up of refugee camps in North Africa and in Balkan states such as Albania.

The plan would be an expedient way for Merkel and the EU establishment to avert political disaster in the bloc. The stand-off with anti-immigrant governments is piling on unbearable pressure. If member states start re-erecting national border controls to limit migration flow, then that jettisons the core tenet of free movement of people within the European bloc.

By “externalizing” the refugee crisis to third countries, a compromise to placate competing political factions within the EU might be found.

However, such a radical solution will bring its own political costs to the EU. It will involve a controversial undermining of international law and the right to asylum, thereby bringing Europe’s global standing as a human rights defender into disrepute.

Imagine how such a scheme would look. Potentially, there will be refugee stockades resembling concentration camps strung along North Africa and the Balkans, as well as the Middle East. Those centers will likely end up housing millions of people in long-term detention as the bureaucracy of the asylum application is processed. The public relations and humanitarian implications for the EU from such a scenario are grim. That’s before the huge financial cost to European taxpayers from managing such an unwieldy arrangement is considered.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Union commissioner for immigration, has condemned  the controversial plan to set up offshore processing centers for would-be immigrants by likening them to Guantanamo Bay.

If Avramopoulos continues to oppose the scheme it can be expected that his job will be put under review by the European Commission.

That’s because the “Guantanamo option” has such an imperative as a way to salvage the EU from its own political implosion.

Europe’s populist parties are on a roll. Almost a quarter of the 28 member states’ governments can be classed as populist. They are skeptical of the Brussels establishment and the neoliberal economic policy of public austerity. They are also critical of the complacent acceptance of immigrants from outside the bloc, arguing that countries should not have to bear the burden of millions of refugees displaced by illegal NATO wars in the Middle East and North Africa.

What is adding to the political chasm opening up in Europe is the perceived arrogance of Brussels-aligned politicians such as French President Emmanuel Macron. France has rebuked Italy’s government for refusing to let ships carrying migrants dock in Sicily.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini hit back by lambasting “French hypocrisy,” pointing out that Macron’s government has been forcing immigrants back across the border with Italy. Rome has decried the lack of solidarity shown by France and other EU members who refuse to share a fairer distribution of asylum seekers.

Macron provoked even more anger after he called for EU financial aid to be cut for Italy and other like-minded countries in central Europe. The French leader displayed patrician snobbery when he compared the rise of populist governments to the “spread of leprosy.”

Italy’s Deputy Prime minister Luigi Di Maio slammed Macron’s comments. “The real leprosy is the hypocrisy of someone who pushes back immigrants at [French-Italian border town] Ventimiglia and then wants to preach to us about our sacrosanct right for an equal distribution of migrants.

Germany’s Merkel has taken a more sympathetic line than Macron towards Italy and other frontline states such as Greece and Spain. She has said those countries cannot be expected to shoulder the responsibility for taking in refugees – more than 40,000 this year alone, according to UN figures.

There’s the rub. The EU’s refugee crisis does not seem solvable given the sharply opposing positions within the bloc. Merkel’s CSU coalition partner is under severe strain from an electoral challenge by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland in upcoming October polls in the southern state of Bavaria, which has been on the receiving end of refugees filing in from Italy and Austria.

As the political tensions within the EU unravel the bloc’s fabric, the desperate situation is moving towards extreme measures of setting up remote processing centers.

The “Guantanamo option” is Europe’s way of staving off a crisis threatening the bloc’s political survival. But that option may well come back to haunt the EU with a vengeance from its harrowing legal and ethical implications.

The real problem is that the EU is paying for a root cause that it’s in denial about. The illegal wars and regime-change subterfuges that Europe cravenly followed Washington in, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya to Syria and elsewhere over the past two decades are major causes of economic austerity, the refugee crisis and the rise of popular contempt for European establishment politics.

Expedient diversions by the EU to buy political escapes, like setting up refugees camps beyond its borders, will not stop the corrosive contempt among its 500 million citizens for conventional politics. The latter has fatally betrayed democratic needs of citizens while pandering to US-led imperialist intrigues and “bankster capitalism”.

Failure to address the root causes is merely postponing the day of reckoning.

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