international analysis and commentary

Migration: solidarity à la carte


At last! The immigration strategy put together by the Juncker Commission is on the table of the Council. Brussels is finally taking a step forward and setting down in black and white that principle of solidarity for which Italy has repeatedly been calling.

In technical jargon this has taken the form of a “communication.” So after years of being relegated to the back seat by the European Council (which comprises the member countries’ leaders), the Commission is taking back the legislative initiative (or “power of initiative,” as the European institutions’ aficionados would call it) precisely in connection with the hot potato of immigration. To put it plainly, leaving aside all official jargon, this is a good result for a Europe that is still devoid of a common immigration policy, but we need to hold it up against the light in order to see where it will lead us. For instance, it is not yet clear – the Council will be putting it to a majority vote – whether the “migrant allocation” system defined by the Commission (attributing different quotas to individual member states according to a set of criteria) will be approved as it is next June. In any case, it is going to kick in only in order to tackle emergencies. Furthermore, the plan for “compulsory quotas” for all EU member states has already been marked “return to sender” by “new” British Prime Minister David Cameron and by “old” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. These two countries and probably some others will opt out – even if they will not be able to block a qualified majority decision, supported by Germany and France, and strongly invoked by Italy.

In the meantime, the other side (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it “the other front”) of the immigration problem, namely a mandate for the use of force against human traffickers, is being debated in New York. Federica Mogherini is busy pressing for such a mandate on the EU’s behalf, and ironically it would seem almost simpler to get a Resolution approved in the UN Security Council (where London is playing Italy’s and Europe’s game) than in the European Council, where London is playing its own game.

Let’s take a closer look at the two sides of the issue. The UN Security Council needs to decide whether and to what extent it can authorize an international operation to smash the illegal traffic in migrants sailing from Libya. That’s the European problem’s external front. On that front, the reservations that need to be overcome are being voiced primarily by Moscow (which is in favor of monitoring the high seas but is opposed to operations on Libya’s shores, also on account of the precedent set in 2011). Europe, on the other hand, is attempting to endow any potential operations with legitimacy under Chapter 7 (on the use of force) on the basis of a Resolution masterminded by Italy and submitted by London. In the meantime, the Libyan Ambassador in New York (who represents himself and one of the warring parties, namely the government in Tobruk) has stressed that Libya hasn’t asked for any external intervention. And just to make that point clear, the Libyan forces answering to General Haftar (Egypt’s protégé) shelled a Turkish merchant ship off the coast of Tobruk. In other words, Europe appears to be united on the external front, but if that unity is to be effective, it needs to be seen on the ground rather than in New York. Also, a certain amount of weight will be carried by the positions of some of the regional players currently clashing over or around Libya with, as we’ve just seen, Turkey and Egypt heading that list.

On the internal front, the situation is still politically sensitive. Anyone laboring under the illusion that David Cameron might temper his opposition to new, binding commitments on the immigration front after winning the recent election hasn’t grasped the essence of the British problem. In fact, in light of the election results, Cameron needs, on the contrary, to succeed in conducting tough negotiations with Brussels, negotiating to stay in the EU on his own terms and winning the referendum on Europe scheduled for 2017 (or earlier). The British Prime Minister knows full well that staying in the European single market is in the interests of the City as well as of the European economy. And he’s also aware that, in view of the Scottish National Party’s landslide election result in pro-European Scotland, if London were to leave the EU, that would most likely lead to the demise of the United Kingdom. In other words, if Cameron is to keep the country together, he needs both to win the match over “devolution” with new Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon, and to chalk up points with Brussels over the United Kingdom’s position in Europe. That explains why Tory London is prepared to play its part on the immigration issue’s external front – albeit without overdoing things of course, because British foreign policy is shipping its oars too, in part – but not on the internal front, where Cameron will be inclined to beef up existing “opt-out” clauses and to set a few additional curbs on the free circulation of people.

But the fact remains that Europe without the United Kingdom (the “Brexit” scenario) would be far weaker in crucial areas both of the economy and of its defense capabilities. While Cameron needs Brussels, Brussels also needs London. Being aware of that allows us to point to a likely conclusion: The European immigration strategy may spawn something akin to partial solidarity, but the European Union’s future is going to be based on variable geometry to an even greater extent than it is today. Only by internal differentiation and by increasing strengthened cooperation among certain countries but not others, the Old Continent will enjoy the prospect of survival. 


A version of this article appeared on the Italian daily La Stampa on May 12, 2015.