EuropeForeign PolicyGreeceItalyMigration

EU Membership Cannot Be ‘à la carte’

The Prime Ministers of Italy and Greece spoke out at Davos about the need for the European Union to treat migration as the region-wide issue that it is, instead of leaving frontline countries to fend for themselves

Since 2015, Europe has struggled to grapple with the growing number of migrants pouring into its borders from the Middle East and North Africa.  Developing a strategic response to a growing number of refugees has prompted a rift between several EU member states, with some nations welcoming millions, and others refusing them outright. Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sat down with the Vice President of Nigeria Yemi Osinbajo, and the Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) William Lacy Swing at this year’s World Economic Forum for a panel discussion on migration titled “Stabilizing the Mediterranean.”

In his opening remarks, Tsipras said he felt that questions posed by the moderator about Europe aiding Africa and controlling migration inflows would be better answered by a larger panel of European representatives, rather than just himself and the Italian Prime Minister, leaders of two of the most heavily burdened frontline nations facing the migration crisis. In fact, the chosen participants in a discussion on stabilizing the Mediterranean highlights the issue that both Tsipras and Gentiloni emphasized throughout the talk: the issue of migration in Europe is indisputably a region-wide problem and should be treated as such. “Me and Paolo (Gentiloni), we tried a lot to convince our partners in the EU that it is necessary to face this problem not as a Mediterranean problem that has to do with Greece and Italy, but as a European one, and as an international one,” Tsipras said.

During the panel discussion, Gentiloni and Tsipras highlighted several of the necessary components for solving the migration issue that were also tackled in the 4th South EU Summit in early January in Rome. Prime Minister Gentiloni hosted leaders from Malta, Cyprus, Greece, France, Portugal, and Spain for a working conference to address regional issues southern Europe is facing, with migration landing at the top of the agenda. Following the conference, leaders released a formal declaration, calling on EU members to honour their duties in supporting frontline countries: “The management  of  migration  flows  will  be  a  fundamental  challenge  for  the  European  Union  in  the years to come. The Southern EU countries are particularly concerned and affected as they are at the forefront of  the  EU  external  borders. Our fundamental role and burden of protecting those borders must be acknowledged and shared by the EU.” The declaration also proposed the creation of a Common European Asylum System “based on the effective respect of the principles of responsibility and solidarity, especially towards frontline Member States.”

Both the South EU Summit and the panel discussion at Davos came on the back of an EU Summit in December 2017, when EU leaders failed to come to a consensus on how to solve the refugee crisis. The rift was prompted by a letter that European Council President and former Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, wrote to heads of state and government, stating that the proposal for mandatory quotas to distribute refugees between EU countries was “ineffective”. The Commission first introduced temporary quotas in 2015 to help Italy and Greece manage a wave of asylum seekers. Several eastern European countries including Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary refused to adhere to them, and were even referred to the European Court of Justice for disregarding their obligation to relocate refugees from Italy and Greece.

“Many leaders in the EU believe that if the problem is not in their backyard, it is not their problem,” Tsipras said during the panel. He highlighted the need for each member state of the Union to adhere to all of the requirements of being an EU member, not just those that they like. “If they believe they can have a Europe à la carte, it is a problem for the future of Europe,” he said. He pointed out that Greece, for its part, had to undergo several painful reforms in order to adhere to the financial obligations of its EU membership in the depths of the financial crisis. He said that now was the time for other members to do the same, regarding their role in the management of the migration crisis. “If someone believes that the European Union is only for benefits, we have to understand that it is not. We have rules….rules are rules. So the problem is not a problem of Italy and Greece and Spain……this is a European problem.”

Gentiloni pointed out that the migration issue has become so monumental that it is often a central platform for winning European elections, however, it is still not a central issue in European budgets. The Italian Prime Minister highlighted his administration’s collaboration with the Libyan government has aided in halving the number of deaths at sea in just the last 12 months. However, he noted that these successes come at a high price for the country, who is still lagging in its economic recovery process. “ I assure that this is one of the more costly political decisions that, in these days, a government can take.” And yet, the Prime Minister said he had no interest in building walls or fences, but instead he and his regional partners hope to create a common European asylum policy in order to bolster the legal immigration process.

All members of the Davos panel highlighted that the issue of migration can not just be solved with aid, it needs to be coupled with concrete action. While Africa is the youngest continent on the planet with immense potential to become the next hub for manufacturing, more than 30% of all Africans under 25-year-old are unemployed, which is what sets many of them off in search of bigger opportunities in Europe. Gentiloni stressed the importance of investments into Africa for further job creation, pointing out that Italy is the third-largest investor in Africa in the globe, after China and the United Arab Emirates. “We need more cooperation and investment than aid,” he said. Rather than offering band-aids to fix a deeper problem, all members of the Davos panel agreed that the success of Africa, and the solution to Europe’s migration issue, must be solved with concrete action and commitment by all parties in order for real change to occur.

The EU Commission has committed to reach a comprehensive agreement on how to pursue a sustainable migration policy by June 2018.

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Mary Reed Davis

Mary is a writer focused on economics, energy resources, and international politics and serves as the managing editor of online content for the South EU Summit Magazine. She holds an MA in International Economics from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and worked in China for five years as a journalist before relocating to Europe. She currently lives in Italy with her husband.

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