October 1, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Siding with the sea

By |2018-03-21T18:21:29+01:00April 26th, 2015|Area 51|
Europe's worry seems somehow dishonest.

omething rings false about Europe’s response to the Mediterranean tribulations of African migrants trying to reach Italian shores aboard rickety vessels that often sink or capsize. Never mind European Union confabulations and public hand wringing. Never mind the promises of more money for patrolling and relief efforts. Underneath it all lurks a visceral sense that the pilgrims are unwanted. This can’t be said aloud even by Europe’s most xenophobic parties. It would be too inhumane. The antagonism toward the migrants has less to do with the politics of lax patrolling — the patrols have never been exceptional — than a gut-level objection that Europe’s problems need no further exacerbation.

Rationally, the EU is burdened by a near decade-long economic downturn. Irrationally, some citizenries gag on the concept of further integration. Insiders resent the deposing of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadafi, who like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (and Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito in another era), kept his country whole by force of atrocity. Gadafi’s late-stage rapprochement with Italy, and Europe, was based on a pledge to patrol his sea borders. Since his 2011 ouster, broken Libya has evolved into a no man’s land ripe for smugglers with hundreds of miles of coastline and infinite trafficking revenue at their disposal.

The EU remains fragile and awkward. It has no collective grounding in American-style “give me your tired, your poor.” Western Europe absorbed millions on the move from the east following the collapse of communism, but most were indigenous Europeans artificially cast off by ideology. The post-1989 absorption extended east toward Russia and south into the Balkans. At the time, the new greater Europe was advertised as inclusive.

Things turned nettlesome when that absorption was forcibly widened — tired and poor-style — to include south Asian and Middle Eastern states, and always writhing Africa. Europe was tolerant of immigrants from former colonies — an unspoken white man’s burden extended to those schooled in homeland culture and language. But the new wave has no such associating dimension. The new migrants are outsiders, taxing self-styled multi-cultural status to practice what they preach — and do so at a time psychological if not physical walls seem easier.

Tectonically speaking, the African south has been gnawing on the European north for millennia, as if eager to erase the Mediterranean itself. Earthquakes along the Apennine side of Italy are part of this intensifying continental drift. (When Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, defending the need for broader humanitarian efforts, says, “Africa’s future ultimately represents our own,” he is unaware of his geological prescience).

But geology and seismology are not sociology, or politics. If geology suggests mingling is a natural part of continent-shifting reality, socio-politics intervenes to build human barriers. There is a part of white, Christian Europe — a Europe still exalted in many storybooks — that (like the antediluvian American south) resents, and has long resented, southern and eastern infringement. The easiest way to express this is to label illegal newcomers as criminals in the making. The result can be a holy hope for an unholy event: that the unaided migrants turn into lemmings.

Again, little of this can be articulated, let alone even hinted at. It’s too gross, too anti-egalitarian, too removed from the civic priorities post-Holocaust Europe. Yet the facts speak for themselves. Though largely reliant on U.S. military support, European states do possess navies. Dispatching more than a handful of vessels to patrol the waters between North Africa and Italy is a feasible act. It’s also an option the EU will not examine, preferring cosmetic fixes. General intervention is unthinkable. The EU doesn’t “do” intervention.

That’s fine on paper. Yet people aren’t paper. And these one-way people — humans paying pirates for dubious transit — will continue plowing into their own carnage, and if turned away the survivors will try again. Italy bears the immediate brunt of the calamity, but the problem is hardly Italian.

The reality is that people of the broken south and east want a way into Europe, no matter how inhospitable the result, but that discontented Europe has no interest in further repairing alien woes. What was extremist whisper has evolved into social networking yelp that increasingly seems to side with the sea.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.