Security and Foreign Policy

Disagreements in the Aquarius Row Reveal the EU’s Migration Woes

The odyssey of the rescue ship Aquarius at the shores of Italy and Malta brought to the fore the problems with EU’s migrant policies. Marika Annunziata examines the responses of EU member states as Italy’s migrant troubles come to a head.


At the end of a tragic Sunday, on June 10th the captain of the vessel Aquarius, a Médicins Sans Frontièrs rescue ship and SOS Mediterranée reached the shores of Malta awaiting further instructions from Rome. What was not foreseeable was the negative response of the newly formed Italian government; after an emergency summit between the new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his two deputy Prime Ministers Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, the Head of the Italian government stated: “I reached out to Joseph Muscat personally this night and I clearly asked that Malta take charge at least of the rescue of the people in greatest need on the Aquarius ship. Muscat did not ensure any form of intervention. It is hereby confirmed the umpteenth unavailability of Malta government, thus of the Europe itself, to take action. Italy is completely isolated. The Dublin Regulation needs to be radically changed”. The Italian Prime Minister, in any event, deployed two patrol vessels with doctors on board and basic commodities in order to ensure safety and healthcare of all the passengers of the Aquarius.

The ship should have reached one of the ports in Sicily by June 11th but the vice Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini denied consent and closed the ports to the 269 people seeking refuge. At the same time Malta objected to any kind of help managing the emergency services, stating that Rome was contacted by the ONG to coordinate the retrieval of the Aquarius and Malta had no competence.

“Starting from today Italy too is going to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration” thundered Mr. Salvini launching also on Twitter the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti (let’s close the ports).

The nationalist rhetoric of the Minister of Interior will not bring good results in the long game. The deal reached between ex-Minister of Interior Minniti and Libya’s UN-backed government as well as the agreement brokered between warring tribal leaders from Libya’s sparsely populated south, through which African migrants heading to the coast travel from Niger, had addressed the problem in the last year. By June 2018 the number of migrants seeking shelter under the European Union’s rescue umbrella have dropped to 35,000, compared to the UNHCR rough estimate of 137,000 immigrants in 2017 reaching the coasts of Italy.

While landings and deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea are decreasing, the problem is still unresolved. At this critical juncture Italy cannot be left alone. The magnitude and complexity of the migration crisis needs an all-encompassing European and global reaction, which States like Italy, Greece and Spain cannot handle alone.

It is true that Italy has, under the Renzi Government, formally accepted to accommodate migrants seeking shelter in Europe in exchange for more flexibility in the field of national economic policies. But it is also true that Italy had little to no choice in this regard. The close geographical proximity to North Africa ensures Italy is the closest and safest harbor for migrants and ONG ships, especially for those that set sail from Libya.

Then why does Malta not intervene in this type of situations? It is a small state with an even smaller population, which obviously cannot take responsibility of a great numbers of migrants. While this is true, it is not commendable that Malta has established a far-reaching SAR (search and rescue) zone for which it bears responsibility as it appears La Valletta cannot handle it properly. This seems to be the main reason why it diverts and reroutes rescue vessels towards Italy and others Mediterranean states.

The restrictive and closed approach of the newly formed Italian government may be viable in the short run: the Aquarius and the two Italian patrol vessels with 629 reached Valencia, Spain, on June 17th; France, at a later point, will accept some of those seeking asylum, but what about the next two rescue ships actually waiting to enter the closest Italian ports?

The new Spanish foreign minister said Spain’s decision in accepting the migrant ship is also meant to push European Union leaders to address the bloc’s migration policies later this month at an EU summit. “Spain has made a gesture that aims to trigger a European dynamic to stop looking away, allowing one (EU member) to cope with the problem while the rest of us pass the buck,” Josep Borrell said.

The solution for the migrant crisis is stilling sitting on the table at the Brussel institutions. The push to get Italy to enforce Dublin regulation reforms is easier said than done as revealed by the Bulgarian failure. The Dublin Regulation still envisages that migrants seeking political asylum need to submit their application in the state of first arrival. Italy, as much as Greece in the lasts years, processing asylum seekers applications and returning illegal immigrants towards their home countries is clearly unbearable for a single country.

The French Italian meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Conte showed once again that the European front in this matter is not united. Mr Macron had accused Italy of “cynicism” and “irresponsibility” for failing to rescue the passengers of the Aquarius. The Italian government responded by accusing France of “hypocrisy”, arguing that Italy’s resources were severely stretched and that its EU partners must do more to help it cope with the new arrivals. The acrimony was so bad that the meeting between Mr. Macron and Mr. Conte was almost cancelled over the Aquarius row.

Relations were patched up on Wednesday evening, when Mr. Macron phoned Mr. Conte to tell him he had not meant to offend Italians efforts in the everlasting migrant crisis.

The truth is that the immigration emergency is more than a crisis, it is a trend which will last through the coming years. Diplomatic spats such as those that occurred between Italy and Malta, or between the French President and the new Italian Prime Minister will not solve the problem.

But as a result of Italy’s antics this week, European leaders are being spurred into action, or are at least considering it far more seriously. The European Union is famous for only ever taking drastic actions when proverbial backs are well and truly against the wall. And so it is with irregular migration plaguing the Mediterranean Sea. The European leaders were happy to forget the crisis post the 2015 flood, leaving the frontline Mediterranean countries to handle the aftermath.

The current European Commission team, headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, is coming to the end of its mandate and considering its legacy. The migrant crisis has made a mockery of Europe’s unity these past years and fueled the popularity of anti-EU, nationalist sentiments in many corners of the continent, not least in Italy – a founding EU country and not long ago one of the bloc’s most enthusiastic members.

Marika Annunziata holds a Master’s Degree in law from LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome with a main concentration in European and international law. Marika is currently a trainee attorney and is studying in order to further pursue diplomatic career in Italy.

Photo Credit:Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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