German philosopher Jurgen Habermas once famously pronounced the European Union a force for good: A model for what he described as a “cosmopolitan world order.”
The Nobel committee agreed and in 2012 awarded the EU its vaunted Peace Prize,
“for over six decades [having] contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”
There is even a well known set of European scholars who devote their energies to writing about something called “normative power Europe,” a mystifying term that amounts to the idea that the EU embodies a series of universal values that it seeks to diffuse globally.
This claim about the continent’s leadership being enlightened is vaguely consistent with all those ads for European summer vacations that will flood social media in the next few months.
They hark back to the TWA and Pan Am posters of the 1970s and 1980s: Happy Europeans sitting at tables in jaunty cafes smoking Gauloises and drinking espresso or fine wine. In the minds of Americans (although long outdated), they are wearing berets, lederhosen or maybe even a kilt!
But we never see images of immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers in these posters.
Being an immigrant
The truth, however, is remarkably different if you are an undocumented immigrant or asylum seeker hoping to reach Europe.
Being one in the US is no easy ride. But in this country there are immigrants and then there are, well…immigrants.
I am one myself. I arrived over three decades ago on one of those TWA planes. But I was grasping my passport in my left hand and my student visa in my right one.
Sadly, many documented and undocumented immigrants to the US are not as lucky as I was. But despite our troublesome and often divisive politics of immigration, most survive and many thrive, contributing to the vitality of America’s society and its economy.
Americans argue over immigration legislation and the Obama administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other administration in history.
And yes, some – too many - tragically die in the desert trying to reach the US. But American border policy in the South West is designed to both intercept and save the lives of those desperate enough to attempt to cross the desert. Indeed, the US throws ever growing amounts of money to try and ensure those people are intercepted.
Now in Europe, like in the US, there are immigrants and… immigrants.
There are those that arrive in a foreign country grasping their EU passport in their hands. Like me when I came to the US, they are often searching for an education, an opportunity and a better life. They may be plumbers from Poland or electricians from England. The key is that they are documented, have some skills (or will be busy acquiring them as students) and are therefore legal.
Then there is Europe’s equivalent of the majority of America’s undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. They largely come from Africa or the Middle East. They are driven by the same concerns as the people trying to get into the US: whether it is fleeing from violence in Guatemala or Syria; or from poverty in Nicaragua or the Central African Republic.
But Europe’s immigrants and asylum seekers don’t just have to traverse a desert.
They have to cross a desert and then sail across a sea as well. Just this past weekend - on May 2 and 3 - over 3,700 of them were rescued from wooden and inflatable boats off the coast of Libya.
It is here where we really begin to question that beguiling portrait of the European Union, European governments or indeed many Europeans as intrinsically “good.”
Refugee policies are all at sea
The resurgence of right-wing nationalist parties in countries that are traditionally welcoming of migrants, such as the UK and France, is reflected in voting behavior. France’s Front National, for example, built its local election campaign in March on immigration and integration issues with remarkable success. The UK Independence Party is still polling about 14% ahead of this week’s British election.
Polling numbers reveal that racism towards many immigrant groups, as well as toward Jews, Muslims and Roma, is on the rise to alarming levels in the more impoverished parts of Europe, like Greece. In a 2014 survey, 86% of the Greek population favored limiting immigration, over half the population expressed unfavorable attitudes towards Roma and Muslims, and just under half felt the same way about Jews. Surprisingly perhaps, to an American audience, the reported figures for Italians in the same poll about immigrants, Muslims and Roma were pretty similar.
It is, however, the EU officialdom’s behavior towards the migrants trying to reach its shore across the Mediterranean Sea that has been most at odds with the image of the “good” EU.
Between 2004 and 2014, the EU’s chief border agency, Frontex (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) has attempted to guard land and sea access to the EU by illegal migrants.
The program, in fact, has been so limited that for much of the last decade more immigrants annually died at sea than people who perished in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
Last year, the EU curtailed even this program.
The justification for this cutback was predictable: that the prospect of a sea rescue encouraged people to risk their lives. So cutting back the number of rescue ships would deter them from making the hazardous crossing. Just as predictably, it hasn’t worked.
The Italian government established its own program in 2013, named Operation Mare Nostrum, in an attempt to compensate for the reduction in the number of patrol vessels manned by EU governments. This program, however, ended in October 2014.
The results have been catastrophic.
Over 3,500 people are estimated to have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea last year, and more than 1,750 are already reported dead or missing in only the first four months of this year alone.
In the last week of April it was reported that another 200 Senegalese migrants died at sea.
Trying to get back on track
The expression of anguish by United Nations officials and human rights groups has forced the EU’s leadership to reappraise their policies.
They have now tripled funding for sea rescues in the face of this humanitarian catastrophe.
But with 46,000 refugees having already arrived on Europe’s shore, and no end to the flow of human suffering in Africa and the Middle East in sight, these new resources look like administering a band-aid when a more comprehensive response is required.
And the ugly politics of Europe still rear their heads.
Facing an imminent election, for example, Britain’s government has already said it will not accept any more asylum seekers.
Southern European countries, who house the vast majority of them, say the burden is inequitable and they should not have to shoulder all that responsibility with their economies still in recession and the social fabric of their societies frayed.
So while they squabble about who bears the burden, more migrants die at sea.
Where oh where is that Europe – the one that is supposedly a force for good – when you actually need it?