Lessons learned from the “Aquarius” case

The “Aquarius” – flagship of the NGO “SOS Méditerrnaée” and managed on this occasion also by “Doctors Without Border” – hosted on Saturday 9 June 629 migrants on the Libyan coast. However, not far away from the Italian coast – place of destination – the ship faced the closure of the Italian port and the beginning of a dispute over the responsibility for those lives between Italy and Malta. After four days in questionable conditions, since the ship had exceeded its capacity of 500 passengers and the food was scarce, Sophie Beau – general director of “SOS Méditerranée” – was relieved to hear that Pedro Sánchez – the recently elected socialist president of Spain – had agreed to host the vessel in the Valencian port, underlining the “obligation” of Spain to comply with “international commitments in the field of humanitarian crises”. Italy and Malta breathed relieved and proceeded to offer support to the ship so that it would arrive safely to the Spanish port.

At the end of 2017, the European Commission updated the results of the European refugee reception agreement signed by 23 Member States and the results showed the saturation experienced by Italy and Greece: only 11% of the 160,000 refugees that had been agreed to be moved to other countries of the European Union (EU) had reached their destinations. With the exception of Malta – which had accommodated 17 more refugees than supposed to – all the other countries were below the established target.

In an attempt to find a long-term solution to better manage the arrival of migrants to Europe and its subsequent distribution among Member States, thus avoiding future conflicts such as the one caused by the “Aquarius”, the French president – Emmanuel Macron – met in Paris with the Spanish president – Pedro Sánchez. Contrary to the idea of the president of the European Council – Donald Tusk – of creating extra-community platforms, Macron – supported by Sanchez and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – proposes to create closed centers on European soil to avoid the arrival in Europe of those migrants who do not comply with the requirements necessary to obtain the refugee status and to impose economic sanctions on those countries that refuse to accept migrants.

Both proposals not only seek to attract Eurosceptics like Matteo Salvini – the Italian Minister of Internal Affairs – towards a position of greater European integration, but also seek to guarantee the continuity of Chancellor Angela Merkel at the helm of Germany since her ally – the Christian Social Union (CSU) – has given her an ultimatum regarding her migration policy which it considers to be too flexible. The “Aquarius” crisis has definitely shown the internal division that Europe is currently experiencing.

The consequences in terms of security are very relevant. This crisis highlights the reality of a divided Europe regarding the migratory wave that broke out in 2015. The massive flow of irregular migration has become the main concern of citizens – closely followed by terrorism – according to the fata provided in the last Eurobarometer published by the European Commission. The multiple jihadist attacks have put countries like Spain, France or the United Kingdom on alert against terrorism. The ability to provoke an attack anywhere in Europe increases due to the free movement of people principle. The arrival of potential terrorists camouflaged as migrants in search of refuge is favored by the lack of control and coordination in the European borders and immigration policies.

The North and East of Europe see this massive migration as a distant problem – mainly due to the lack of geographical proximity – thus, provide little help to countries like Italy and Greece, which are in a delicate situation since, in spite of having been two of the European countries that were more affected by the economic crisis of 2008, they are the ones that have received more migrants in recent years. On the 10th anniversary of the economic crisis the consequences are clear: populism is indicative of today. If Europeans are not able to offer valid solutions in the short and long term, we could be facing the beginning of a future fracture of the European project. In these difficult moments, unity is more necessary than ever.


Author: Valeria Nadal, Global Affairs (Strategic Studies) University of Navarra

Responsibility for the information and views set out in this publication lies entirely with the author.