September 19, 2023 - 11:45am

For the European Union, controlling the accelerating flow of migration from the Global South is a headache that just will not go away. The recent chaotic scenes on the Italian island of Lampedusa, just off the coast of North Africa, where more than 10,000 migrants from West Africa landed over the past week (dwarfing its 6,000 population), have now stoked a pan-European crisis. 

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, who came to power vowing to halt the migrant flow, has instead found herself presiding over twice as many arrivals as last year — 127,000 so far in 2023. While most migrants intend to move on to the richer countries of Northern Europe, Germany has already announced that it will refuse to accept arrivals from Italy, followed by France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who observed that while Europe has an obligation to host genuine refugees, the current flow of economic migrants from countries such as Guinea, Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire is a different matter entirely. 

“There should not be a message given to people coming on our soil that they are welcomed in our countries no matter what,” Darmanin told French radio. “We should absolutely send back those who have no reason to be in Europe.” Further, he pledged “to help Italy to maintain its borders”.

But while the no-nonsense rhetoric is being framed as a new, harder European line on migration, what this all means in practice is hard to discern. Meloni has staked her political capital on pushing an EU naval blockade of the Libyan and Tunisian coasts to preserve “the future of Europe”, but when European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen arrived in Lampedusa on a “solidarity mission”, she shied away from the topic. Instead, she unveiled a 10-point action plan focusing on deploying Frontex to help the Italian coastguard manage arrivals, and on persuading the countries of origin to take back their unwanted migrants.

Still, Meloni hasn’t given up on her blockade aspirations, vowing to pursue the idea at the next EU summit, while the Commission’s spokesperson Anitta Hipper asserted that “we have expressed the support to explore these possibilities”. But details on how the blockade would work, presumably analogous to Australia’s successful operation to turn back migrant boats, are sparse, and observers are sceptical that European and international maritime law would permit it to function effectively.

In the meantime, European leaders find themselves threatened by increasingly restive voters, and dependent on the goodwill of African leaders. The recently announced EU migration deal with Tunisia’s new dictator Kais Saied is evidently not yet bearing fruit, despite his increasingly radical crackdown on African migrants within his borders, and is now taking flak from the EU’s own Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell for overstepping the bloc’s opaque and overlapping jurisdictional competencies. 

In all this, the recent coup epidemic in the Sahel throws another unpredictable element into the mix. The now Russia-sympathetic countries in the region are the overland trafficking route from West Africa’s poor and populous countries of origin, but their leaders are increasingly disinclined to work with European counterparts. More than this, they are likely amenable to Russian attempts to use migration as a weapon against Europe’s stability, as was the case with 2021’s Polish border crisis. 

Perhaps increasing violence and instability in the Sahel will make the route as undesirable for migrants as Libya has now become, stemming the flow — or perhaps dwindling state capacity and Russian mischief-making will accelerate the flow. Either way, European leaders have very little agency in cutting off the flood closer to its source, deepening the already controversial dependence on Tunisia.

As the great Italian writer Giuseppe Tomaso di Lampedusa, whose ancestors were once the feudal rulers of today’s stricken island, observed in his classic novel The Leopard: “For things to stay as they are, everything must change.” European leaders find themselves wrestling with a similar paradox: to preserve the continent’s political stability something drastic has to be done, and quickly, but the EU’s own internal tensions and stifling legal framework limit their capacity to find a workable solution.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.