It is easy to be cynical about the outpouring of grief from the European Union’s leaders on behalf of the roughly 800 migrants who drowned when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean last week. Those leaders pledged “determined action … to prevent the loss of lives at sea and to avoid that such human tragedies happen again”—but that pledge was first made in October 2013, the last time Europe saw a crisis of this kind. EU leaders hold meetings and give grand statements to the cameras, because these are easy ways to show they care. But in the more than 18 months since the last mass drowning hit the headlines, the Lampedusa disaster, little action has been taken.
“We have become accomplices to one of the biggest crimes to take place in European postwar history,” Germany’s Spiegel magazine said.
Yet Europe will not open its doors to tens of thousands of immigrants, making any debate over the morality of such a policy irrelevant. Just about all of Europe’s major leaders know that in the coming months this crisis will have blown over and been forgotten. Opening the doors to impoverished people will only cost them votes. So all the humanitarian talk signifies nothing but meaningless cant.
However, amid those hypocritical platitudes the EU is heading towards increasing its military presence in the Mediterranean that will gradually draw it deeper into Africa. Europe refuses to make it easier for Africans to migrate to Europe legally, so it will to prevent these deaths by stopping the boats. EU leaders are thinking—military involvement in Africa, not loosening immigration restrictions—is the way to solve this problem. EU leaders promise a mission “to identify, capture, and destroy” the ships used to ferry the immigrants over, “before they are used by traffickers.” Several EU members have pledged to contribute militarily. Britain will send its Navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark. Germany has promised 11 ships. This military mission requires either an invitation from Libya (which lacks a functioning government) or authorsation under a United Nations mandate. The EU leaders has also promised to “increase support to Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Niger among others, to monitor and control the land borders and routes.” These are small steps, but they will surely be followed by bigger ones and what is described as “mission creep”. The presence of EU forces will most definitely attract the increased attention of the militant Islamists of ISIS, who are already active in the region
The main announcements since last week’s sinking all revolve around securing Europe. There is now a real possibility of European military strikes in Libyan waters, and even on Libyan territory. Europe’s surveillance operation is not aimed at rescuing immigrants. It operates only within 30 miles from the European coast—it is aimed at protecting Europe. That action would not be easy. Earlier military missions in Africa have shown that Europe struggles to put together the logistic capacity for larger Africa missions—for example, in the past it has had to rely on the United States for transportation and refuelling.
Northern Africa may well turn into a battleground with enormous implications.
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