Aquarius drama: Europe gambling with refugees

Spain's new government has offered to allow the rescue ship Aquarius carrying 629 refugees to dock in a Spanish port. However, the lack of supplies on board makes the journey to Spain a risky undertaking. Before Spain's decision Malta and Italy had spent days locked in a dispute over who would accept the ship. For commentators the Aquarius drama highlights the failure of Europe's asylum policy.

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Le Monde (FR) /

Refugees not just Italy's concern

Italy is reminding Europe of its responsibilities, Le Monde stresses:

“The method chosen by Italy's new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is shocking. In denying migrants picked up in operations supervised by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome access to Italian ports, he is violating international commitments made by his country. Nevertheless his decision has the merit of making clear to everyone that rescue work and the reception of African migrants must not be the concern of Italy alone. After all, Italy has taken in over 600,000 asylum seekers since 2014 without getting much more than pretty words from its partners in return.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

Hostage-taking will have repercussions

Rome won't get very far with hostage-taking and blackmailing, rails La Repubblica's Brussels correspondent Andrea Bonanni:

“In its first international test the populist government that has come to power in Italy had no qualms about taking more than six hundred people hostage in the hope of making Europe listen to its demands. This was not a good start. Salvini sees Spain's intervention as proof of the success of his political strategy. This is a big mistake. Pedro Sánchez's Socialist government has not shown solidarity with Italy but with the hostages whom the Italian government threw onto the European negotiating table. Now that they are safe all Europe will hold Salvini and his supporters to account for behaviour that Paris has described as 'disgusting'.”

Népszava (HU) /

No cure for populism

The Aquarius has become a bitter symbol, Népszava observes:

“An image of how the populist parties have good prospects in Europe. Our hopes that the anti-European, radical forces will be forced to retreat are in vain. They're just pipe dreams. These forces will be able to capitalise politically on the refugee issue for years and decades to come. The traditional parties are unable to take the wind out of their sails. ... These refugees who are being left to vegetate in dreadful conditions are the victims of a political game.”

La Stampa (IT) /

EU is paralysed and powerless

Who is Rome's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini really talking about when he casts Europe as the bogeyman? political scientist Gian Enrico Rusconi asks in La Stampa:

“Salvini has decided to openly challenge Europe for domestic reasons. But his rhetoric ('we are no longer slaves') presupposes the existence of a 'sovereign' power that has shirked its responsibilities. The various European agencies and institutions are making widespread appeals to the humanitarian principle of saving human lives. ... But where is this 'sovereign' European who has the authority to decide effectively and consensually? It's not the parliament in Strasbourg, and it's not the EU Commission, it's the European Council representing the states of Europe. But this body is incapable of either modifying or reforming the Dublin Regulation. The virtual sovereign decision-maker is paralysed and powerless.”

El País (ES) /

Spain's leftist government counter-attacks

The positive signals from the new Sánchez government come at the right moment, El País comments approvingly:

“With the decision to allow the Aquarius, which is transporting 629 refugees and rescued immigrants, to dock in the port of Valencia the Spanish government is aligning with those who believe that emergencies require above all a humanitarian response and that there is an alternative to managing the refugee crisis by closing ports and borders as the far right demands. ... This gesture is especially important at a time when an aggressive discourse is spreading in Europe and harming irregular immigrants. When the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini proclaims that 'the easy life of the immigrants' has now come to an end, not only is he conveying a distorted image of reality, he is also encouraging their persecution.”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

A reprehensible game with human lives

The positive outcome does not justify the means Rome used to attain it, Corriere della Sera believes:

“The upshot is morally hard to digest: a policy that cynically gambles with human lives. In addition we're left with the mildly grotesque aftertaste of a diplomatic fight between a global power (we're still a global power, aren't we?) and a state [Malta] that is only six times the size of the island of Ischia. On the other hand the scenario for migrants has changed abruptly. This new situation could even be to their advantage. ... The case of the Aquarius and Spain establishes a precedent that cannot be reversed. To a certain extent the Treaty of Dublin has been changed before it can be amended on paper. Nevertheless, further risky games should be avoided.”

The Daily Telegraph (GB) /

Compassion only spurs on the refugee business

Rescue missions in the Mediterranean and Spain's open arms threaten to increase the problem of illegal migration, The Daily Telegraph criticises:

“The more hard-headed must question whether the very presence of these rescue vessels is encouraging people to pay traffickers and risk their lives knowing they will be taken to an EU port rather than back to an African one like Tunis or Algiers. The new Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez will doubtless win plaudits for agreeing to take the Aquarius and its passengers. But his action, however well-meaning, is not going to resolve this problem and risks fuelling the illegal smuggling which the EU is trying to close down.”

Der Standard (AT) /

Europe has the government it deserves in Rome

The EU is now receiving its just deserts for leaving Italy in the lurch over the refugee crisis, Der Standard comments:

“When Salvini and the new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte say that it is simply not acceptable for state and private rescue ships from all over the Mediterranean to take migrants almost exclusively to Italy, they're right. Their leftist predecessors said much the same thing - and were left in the lurch by their EU partners. The lack of solidarity in the handling of the refugee crisis was one of the main reasons for the electoral victory of the anti-European populists. And now half the continent is trembling with fear faced with the budget adventurers and anti-European crackpots in Rome. But with only a little exaggeration you could say that Europe has got the Italian government it deserves.”

Echo of Moscow (RU) /

No sign of a good outcome in refugee crisis

There are neither clear culprits nor easy solutions in the refugee crisis, the Echo of Moscow observes:

“The civilised countries thought that if they got rid of the bad regimes these would be replaced by good regimes and overlooked the possibility that other bad regimes or even worse ones could take their place. ... Countless millions are now fleeing to prosperous Europe. ... Who is to blame? The refugees who are trying to save their own lives? Or the Italians who are tired of being the European hospital's accident and emergency department? Should these migrants be drowned? Or should we try to promote peace in the countries they are fleeing? It's easy to begin a war. Establishing peace could take so long that the youths now fleeing their country could become old in the meantime. There are many scenarios with a bad outcome - but there is no sign of a good outcome.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

Not a shred of humanism left

Italy's new minister of the interior has tossed his country's refugee policy overboard, La Repubblica rails:

“In just one week Matteo Salvini has destroyed Italy's immigration policy with the lunatic attempt to erect a wall in the middle of the Mediterranean. He has once and for all demolished the humanitarian spirit of [the Italian maritime rescue organisation] Mare Nostrum, which was created to prevent the Strait of Sicily from becoming a mass grave. ... In crescendo-like fashion, as if he were still in the midst of an election campaign, he raised his voice to the level of yesterday night's tweet: 'We are shutting the ports'. ... Clearly he cares neither about the repercussions of his statements nor about his institutional role.”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

WIthout solidarity the EU will fail

Before Italy allows more refugees to land on its territory the question of whether the principle of solidarity still applies in the EU must be settled once and for all, Corriere della Sera writes in defence of the decision:

“Article 67 paragraph 2 of the EU treaty explicitly calls for solidarity in sharing the burden of the common asylum policy. So far there has been barely any solidarity among member states. In this context how can we forget France and Spain's closure of their ports last summer, on which the European institutions remained silent? Time has run out. We don't need any more contrived phrases or pro-European rhetoric. Either solidarity regarding immigration becomes a concrete project of the EU or the project of European integration itself will be doomed to failure.”