Commentary: Medreset Policy Brief 5 – (The EU's Migration, Asylum and Mobility Policies in the Mediterranean) - by Serres Thomas
The fifth policy brief published by Medreset in December 2018 tackles what has become the most sensitive dimension in Euro-Mediterranean relations: migration in all its forms. Since the first half of the 1990s, with the adoption of the Maastricht treaty (1992) and the creation of the Union for the Mediterranean (1995), the circulation of individuals has been a topic marked by “fundamental divergences of interests and approaches.” Following, this new brief proposes an analysis of the policies implemented by the EU in the Mediterranean space based on the concerns of actors in Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries. Unsurprisingly, the content of the brief is extremely critical and underlines the unilateralism of the EU, the lack of cohesion among European actors, and the tendency to view migration through the sole lens of security.
The systematic securitization of migration is the most pressing issue, as it fosters an uni-dimensional and short term approach centered on a narrow understanding of European interests. Drawing on the criticism of stakeholders in the South, the brief highlights the negative impact of the current framework on development policies and its dangerous consequences for migrants, whether they are asylum seekers or economic refugees. Once perceived as a normative power, mainly preoccupied with the promotion of its so-called values (democracy, free market, rule of law...), the EU appears to be prioritizing security over all else. It thus undermines its own discourse on human rights and lowers the standards for its partners in the South and East Mediterranean. While one should not underestimate the role of Southern governments in promoting securitizing practices (Serres, 2018), the current tendency to undermine any humanitarian effort clearly originates from the heart of the EU. Recent decisions taken by the Italian government - closing its ports and pushing for the interception of migrant boats at sea - shows that this moral drift is now deeply embedded in European politics. This is certainly a tendency that this brief captures perfectly. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that another dimension of the ongoing securitization is overlooked: the current framework has allowed for the growth of a security-driven economy and a for-profit xenophobia that serves corporate interests (Rodier, 2012).
Actors in the South of the Mediterranean also underline the difficulty to interact with a “contradictory and inconsistent actor,” as European discourses and policies reflect the tension between the European and the national level. These problems have been apparent since the beginning of the refugee crisis, as member states failed to act in solidarity (despite a rare display of leadership by German Chancellor Angela Merkel) and systematically undermined the attempts of the EU Commission to enforce a union-wide system to share the burden. This lack of cohesion is spectacularly exemplified by the current feud opposing the French and Italian governments.
As “the most critical stakeholders” quoted in the brief rightfully put it, the current governance of migration remains eminently postcolonial. It is worth noting that this characterization comes with profound contradictions related to the way in which the Euro-Mediterranean -and Euro-African- partnership was conceptualized in the aftermath of decolonization. Conceived as a space of compromise, a shared Eurafrican space was to bring together the two shores of the Mediterranean (Hansen & Jonssonn 2018). Yet, the current unilateralism characterizing EU migration policies demonstrates the unbalanced power relations and results in the “obliteration of the Mediterranean as a single and common space.” Confronted with its inner demons, the EU undermines its post-colonial liberal fantasy of a Eurafrican space. It undermines the very possibility of a space of common governance and exchange by focusing solely on the containment of the human flows that terrorize its racial member states. Nonetheless, despite the collapse of this post-colonial fantasy, one should not underestimate the very real social and cultural mixing that occurs in spite of anti-migrants rhetoric. De facto, the South of Europe is a land of migration where encounters cannot be limited to identity conflicts and competition for jobs. There, immigration has positively affected cultural production, as well as associative and political movements (King, 2001).
While the brief is fair in underlining the many flaws of EU actors, it can demonstrates a contradiction: this attempt to provide a non-Eurocentric analysis is nevertheless centered on Europe. Indeed, when looking at the system of human security that governs migrations in the Mediterranean, the EU is certainly not the only major actor involved. Beyond the lack of South-South cooperation, which has been a longstanding issue in the region, one should not underestimate the role of governments in North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, while some of these partners are in an unstable position resulting in a form of dependence toward the North (Libya, Tunisia), others have instrumentalized the issue of migration in various ways. For instance, Turkey has been using Syrian refugees has bargaining chips with its Western counterparts. As for the Algerian government, it has developed an increasingly racist and repressive stance toward migrants coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. In short, a comprehensive understanding of human security apparatuses in the Mediterranean should not exaggerate the unilateralism of European policies.
As always, the brief ends with an interesting set of recommendations. While some of them might sound slightly systematic (adopting a comprehensive approach, focusing on human rights, increasing gender sensitivity), they are nonetheless appropriate given the current state of affairs. One recommendation appears to be especially important and deserves special attention. The authors underline the problems resulting from the position of privilege enjoyed by professionalized civil society organizations with strong transnational ties, at the expense of local grassroots organizations. In response they rightfully emphasize the need to give a prominent role to the latter, as these organizations simply have a better understanding of (and connections with) local configurations. Such a shift would imply a simplification of the European approach, and a genuine de-centering of policy expectations. But it would also allow for the conceptualization of migration policies in touch with the needs of local communities, and the substitution of a securitizing approach with one based on sustainable development and social justice.