EU ministers shut the door on North African refugee crisis

Ben Fox reports from Brussels on the lurch to the right among European Union home affairs ministers, who are threatening to close the door on North African refugees.

Anyone who doubted that nationalist populism is dominating European politics should think again after Europen Union home affairs ministers agreed to radical reforms of the Schengen Agreement which allows passport-free travel for 22 EU Member States. These include allowing governments to restore their border controls and a frankly ridiculous idea to combat immigration by trying to agree “readmission accords” with countries in North Africa and the Middle East so that refugees can be returned to their country of origin.

The notion that the likes of Libya and Tunisia will agree to these “readmission accords” would be laughable if the issue wasn’t so serious.

The move comes after a staged diplomatic row between French president Nikolas Sarkozy and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi over the status of 20,000 Tunisian refugees, which allowed both leaders to talk tough on immigration. With Sarkozy under pressure from Marine Le Pen’s strong showing for the Front National in advance of next year’s presidential elections, and Berlusconi trying to appease his key coalition partners, the anti-immigrant Northern League party, cheap political populism is the order of the day.

However, it is unfortunately not just France and Italy where extreme nationalism has gained ground as a result of the economic and social crisis. The Conservative government in the Netherlands is propped up by the Freedom party led by Geert Wilders, currently on trial for inciting racial hatred.

Meanwhile, the strong performance of the ultra-nationalist True Finns party and the rising power of the far-right Danish People’s party have added to the already heady brew of anti-immigrant nationalism.

Indeed, the European Commission has been working with the European Parliament and, less successfully, with government ministers to try to establish a burden-sharing programme and a common EU asylum system in a bid to protect refugees seeking asylum while also maintaining border control against illegal immigration. Fortunately, the plans agreed by Home Affairs ministers need to be backed by the Parliament, which robustly opposed the proposals during a debate in Strasbourg this week.

As Labour’s EU justice and home affairs spokesman Claude Moraes put it:

“Austerity and the pressure of new refugee flows is determining a political opportunistic revision of a treaty which has remained in tact through major migrant flow upheavals in the past, including refugee flows from the former Yugoslavia.”

It seems that politicians across Europe are desperate to line up to welcome the triumph of democracy that is the Arab Spring; however, when it comes to dealing with the humanitarian consequences of the conflict that has accompanied the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East they can’t get out of the room fast enough – with Britain at the forefront. Home Secretary Theresa May has already stated that she will oppose any moves for Britain to resettle refugees from Libya and Tunisia.

The hypocrisy of France and Britain who, along with the US, are leading the military campaign against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, is quite staggering. Here are two countries waging war (rightly or wrongly) and yet refusing to take any responsibility for the humanitarian consequences. With potentially hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to flee the war-zones of Libya and other North African countries, the least you would imagine is that EU countries, particularly those most involved in the conflict, would take some responsibility for their plight.

Apparently not. What a civilised bunch we are.

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