Thursday 26 April 2018

Leaders are big on words but short on action

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi during a news conference in Rome
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi during a news conference in Rome

Harriet Alexander

It was the leader of one of the smallest countries in Europe who spoke with the loudest voice. As 700 migrants were reported to have perished in the Mediterranean, Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, rounded on his fellow European leaders.

"A time will come when Europe will be judged harshly for its inaction, as it was judged when it had turned a blind eye to genocide," he said.

His words appeared to resonate. Across Europe - from Spain, France, Britain, Germany and Italy - politicians demanded action. Traffickers must be stopped, they said. Libya's borders must be secured. Countries must be encouraged to become more democratic, to make fleeing a less palatable prospect.

The waves of wretched people washing on to the shores of southern Europe cannot be easily calmed. The four-year civil war in Syria has pushed almost four million people from their homes. Withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan has left the country shaky. Somalia's al-Shabaab terrorists continue to wreak havoc. The political collapse of Libya has created vast lawless swathes of country, where people traffickers can operate with impunity and dispatch daily flotillas of the desperate.

In Calais - a magnet for most of those who cross the Mediterranean - the majority of people seem to be from Eritrea.

President Isaias Afewerki has turned the African country into one of the most repressive on the continent, by introducing what is in practice unlimited compulsory military service, from which people are literally dying to escape.

Matteo Renzi, the Italian leader, said boats should be prevented from setting sail from Libya, though quite how he intends to stop them, he didn't say. A €40m EU border training mission, begun in 2013, lies in tatters.

Targeting the traffickers would help, and an initiative to break up the gangs was launched in The Hague last month. But with lawless territory across vast areas of the Sahara, it will be an exceptionally tough nut to crack. The EU said yesterday it would hold an urgent meeting of foreign and interior ministers this week, to seek an EU-wide solution.

Proposals should encompass immediate assistance for countries hosting the thousands of migrants. It is unfair to leave it to southern European nations to bear the brunt of the arrivals.

Reinstating a comprehensive search and rescue operation would not solve the problem, but it would at least reduce the number of fatalities.

The pressure must also be increased on countries such as Eritrea to improve their human rights records, and not accept what a French diplomat termed "nonsensical drivel" in their promises of reform in return for aid.

At the end of this month a meeting will be held in Cairo to follow up on the Khartoum Process to stop people trafficking: now is the moment to exert pressure on repressive regimes in Africa.

Yesterday, we heard the words. Now we need to see the action - or Europe will indeed be judged harshly. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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