In October 2013 at least 311 Africans drowned near the Italian Island of Lampedusa, trying to reach Europe. The incident sent shock waves around the world and, in particular the European Union (EU), which pledged to do whatever it takes to ensure that such tragedy would never happen again.
During the 4th EU-Africa summit, a year after the tragedy, both EU and African Union (AU) reaffirmed their commitment to tackle irregular immigration. They also committed to ensuring that immigration works for both continents in a positive way.
Yet, an estimated 1750 migrants from Africa, often using dangerous and unseaworthy boats in their efforts to reach Europe have since lost their lives. And that number is expected to rise due to the increase in part of the terrorists activities of groups such as the ISIS Al Shabab and Boko Haram
Meanwhile, the EU is asking, yet again, as to what can be done to stem irregular migration to its continent. The EU’s seemingly laidback approach to this crucial issue has led to questions about its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in Africa and Libya in particular, which has been the main route for migrants trying to reach Europe.
In Britain, Ed Miliband the former leader of the Labour Party, Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independent party (UKIP) as well Mark Reckless of UKIP, have all blamed David Cameron, UK’s Prime Minister for the migrant crisis.
They have argued that the lawlessness in Libya is as a direct result of Britain and the EU’s foreign policies in that country. The intervention by Britain and France, the key EU countries, helped depose Libya’s long time ruler, Muamar Gaddafi and the country has descended into chaos since. Libya has no government to speak of. This has made the country’s boarders porous.
Insecurity and the deteriorating living standards in the country, is forcing most of its citizens as well as those from other parts of the continent to migrate to Europe in search of better living conditions.
The other side of this argument is that Gaddafi had to be taken out because he was a threat to his own people. Yet, it is clear that those who orchestrated the deposition of Gaddafi did not have a clear plan for the post Gaddafi Libya.
This is the point that Ian Black, writing in The Guardian has raised. He argues that Britain, France and their Western allies, could and should have planned for life after Gaddafi. The lack of planning as to what would happen after Gaddafi has meant that Libya has become lawless and in turn this has had implications for increased irregular immigration to Europe.
On 13 January 2011, I was in Libya at Gaddafi’s invitation to a conference that examined immigration from Africa to Europe. We heard directly from men and women whose job it was to search and rescue migrants from traffickers operating in the desert.
From my experience, the work of this special force was important and a more sustainable way of ensuring that fewer migrants reached the Mediterranean Sea via Libya. This also deterred human traffickers. The solution put forward by the EU to establish a naval mission to destroy smugglers boats, is laudable but the people traffickers should be tackled at the start of their journey in desert and not the end.
Decision Making and the Common Foreign and Security Policy
The EU has spent several years trying to reach a common position with respect to foreign and security issues. All decisions in this area are reached unanimously and the Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) is used to speed up decisions on previously agreed positions, however decisions on whether to take military action have to be reached unanimously at all times.
In order to speed up decision making, a concept of Constructive Abstention was introduced but in practice it simply enables countries to opt in and out of a mission based on interests and resources.
An example of this is the Iraq and Libya operations. In Iraq, France and Germany did not agree to Europe’s involvement in the war, whilst Britain, Spain and Italy did. In Libya France and Britain agreed to military action whilst Germany opted out.
On irregular migration, some EU member states have agreed to search and rescue missions whilst others such as Britain have argued that this will act as a “pull” factor for more migrants in the belief that they will be rescued.
There is also disagreement as to what should happen to the migrants once they have been rescued. For instance, whilst Britain is happy to send its navy service to join the search and rescue, it is not willing to take in migrants due to pressures at home to reduce migration – a reason that made Britain opt out on clauses that would compel it to take in some migrants.
The disagreement between EU member states is not surprising. The CFSP does not prescribe what parts of the foreign policy should be left to member states and in fact member states have retained embassies in third countries and operate alongside EU External Action offices or what should be “EU embassies”.
This has left the EU in an impossible situation. How do you line up 28 Foreign Policies behind one common position in life and death situations?
As an Institution, the EU seeks to engage with the outside world through multilateral structures and institutions. With respect to Africa, the most important institution is the African Union (AU). There are however debates as to whether this is a partnership of equals. As much as EU is seen as a model institution and it is taking a leading role in this issue, the absence of AU in this debate begs a question as to whether the AU is playing any role in stemming irregular migration.
As much as the EU has a part to play, especially because of its role in the current mess in Libya, the AU has a crucial role to play – in ensuring that its member states take responsibility for social and economic welfare as well as security of its citizens, right on the continent.