Europe Bearing the Cost of US Mideast Policy

Europe Bearing the Cost of US Mideast PolicyEurope Bearing the Cost of US Mideast Policy

Four years after having brought about the fall of long-ruling autocrat Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, Europe has to come to terms with the law of unintended consequences.

 Removing Gaddafi was essentially the US President Barack Obama’s doing, acting through NATO with the support of France and the UK and was supposed to usher in Libya an era of freedom and democracy. That it would lead to the collapse of the Libyan state and bring about a fragmentation of the country was something that the planners in Washington visibly overlooked, Alexander Casella, Swiss journalist and academic, wrote for ATimes.

And so was the fact that Libya would become one of the main avenues for illegal immigration to Europe. With the US shielded by geography, it is now America’s allies that are left inheriting the mess, namely, a massive wave of illegal immigrants coming through Libya, which they are proving increasingly unable to address.

High oil revenues, a visa-free regime and a low population level, had made of Libya a preferred destination for sub-Saharan Africans seeking employment and it was estimated that, at any given time, some two million foreigners were working in the country.

That some, among this number, would want to move illegally to Italy was a given, albeit one that was under control.  Over the years, Italian authorities had worked out several arrangements with Gaddafi, some formal and some informal which provided that he would keep the lid on transit migration through Libya.

But all the arrangements collapsed with the fall of Gaddafi, and overnight, the country became the preferred access route for illegal migration to Italy.  With the number of boats, all heading to Italy and more specifically to the island of Lampedusa increasing, so did the number of sinkings.

  Operation Mare Nostrum

By 2012 loss of life was estimated in the thousands and the rescue by the Italian Coast Guard of drifting, overloaded migrant boats became a daily occurrence. With Italian public opinion becoming increasingly concerned, the Italian government launched in October 2013 operation “Mare Nostrum,” a massive rescue at sea effort which is credited with having saved, in one year, over 120,000 lives, all of whom were landed in Italy. By comparison, in the years prior to the fall of Gaddafi, the number of those intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard was below 40,000, all of whom were returned to Libya.

While the rescue operation, which has now been taken over by the European Union could not be faulted on humanitarian grounds, it has left two unanswered questions. First, whether the publicity given to the operation would not encourage others to put their lives at risk, and, second, what to do with the saved.

This obviously was not of Italy’s concern were it only for the fact that most of the migrants would ultimately move north to Germany, Switzerland or Scandinavia. Thus, the operation does not appear to have comprised any strategic thinking.

With the fall of Gaddafi having turned Libya into an open gate to Europe, the same phenomenon developed in the Eastern Mediterranean involving this time Syria, Turkey and Greece.

As of today, the conflict in Syria has generated some 7.5 million internally displaced, in addition to some 3.8 million refugees who sought asylum in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

While the overwhelming majority initially stayed in the camps set up to shelter them, a combination of a lack of hope and poor living conditions is inducing an increasing number to try to move to Europe.

  Libya the Stepping Stone

The migrant movement went at first unnoticed by the Europeans and essentially used Libya as a stepping stone. By early 2015, numbers exploded as a new migration route emerged going through Turkey, then the island of Kos in Greece, from there to Athens and to Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, with Germany and Sweden as the preferred final destinations.

Currently it is estimated that some 2,000 Syrians per day are crossing into Hungary, the first European country on their route which is a member of the Schengen-free movement area and Germany is bracing itself for an inflow of some 800,000 arrivals before the end of the year.

There are then the likes of Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and the Baltic states to which no one wishes to emigrate and which are neither part of the problem nor of the solution. Finally there are countries of destination such as the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Austria, which bear the weight of the bulk of the arrivals.

Faced with an inflow, which is for all practical purposes out of control, the question that is increasingly being raised in the countries of destination is whether, over the next years or decades the influx can be sustained. As of today, the answer is negative, but with one caveat. It is a weak, disorganized, erratic and above all unthinking negative.

European national societies do not react uniformly to a foreign population inflow, albeit one that occurs outside the rule of law and is thus uncontrolled. By and large, Mediterranean countries with less structured administration and weak social safety nets tend to be less adverse to a foreign inflow than their northern counterparts.

  Europe Divided

With the Europeans divided into inaction, or nibbling at the periphery of the problem but incapable of coming to grips with its substance, the international system has shown itself equally inept.

Neither the United Nations and its various components nor the European Commission has shown the foresight, or simply the common sense, to try to realistically come to terms with a crisis, which affects three continents and was three years in the making.

Pending a solution, there is no escaping the fact that Europe has, for all practical purposes, forfeited the control of its borders. All a refugee has to do to move to Europe is to find the funds to pay a smuggler.

Given the state of poverty, disorder, lawlessness, corruption, a lack of opportunity and insecurity, which prevails where migrants leave from, it is surprising that so far more have not chosen this path. But they might.

The Europeans will continue to pay the price for what was, at its inception, the Middle East policy designed in Washington, that ended up by destabilizing the whole Mediterranean.