The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Eugenio Cusumano, assistant professor in International Relations, University of Leiden

The recent disembarkation in Valencia of the migrants rescued by the Aquarius, a ship operated by the charity SO-Mediterranée, solves a diplomatic standoff in danger of turning into a humanitarian crisis. The roads and sea routes to hell, however, are paved with good intentions. The opening of a Spanish port also legitimised Italy’s decision to close its own, and may ultimately be detrimental to both managing the humanitarian emergency off Libyan shores and finding a viable solution to Italy’s maritime migrations problem.

On Sunday, 10 June, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini declared that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ships like the Aquarius, which had just rescued 629 people offshore Libya, would not be allowed to disembark migrants in Italy unless Malta opened its ports too. Although unprecedented, Salvini’s decision did not emerge out of nowhere.

Since late 2016, statements from the European Border Agency Frontex – which repeatedly criticized NGOs as a pull factor of migration and a catalyst of smuggling – reinforced the impression that maritime rescue charities were responsible for a surge in migrant arrivals which Italy was being left to face alone. In May 2017, an Italian Senate Defence Committee investigation called for establishing clearer rules on maritime rescuing offshore Libya in order to preserve Italy’s control over its borders.

As a result, then Democratic Party Interior Minister Marco Minniti urged NGOs to sign a code of conduct that imposed several limitations on rescuing operations, threatening the closure of Italian ports to non-signatory organizations. The Democratic Party-led government, however, never followed through on the threat to close ports. Soon after its establishment, the new Interior Minister Salvini seized the first opportunity to deploy this ready-made threat, using it to showcase its hard line anti-immigration stance on a day when municipal elections were being held.

The closure of Italian ports left the Aquarius without any place to disembark 629 migrants and 11 dead bodies. However, the legal shakiness of the decision and the growing risk of a humanitarian crisis aboard the rescue vessel, denounced by the Catholic Church, foreign states, and activists alike, soon started to strain the cohesion of the Italian government coalition. The newly-elected Spanish prime minister Sanchez’s announcement that migrants would be welcome in Valencia came as an unexpected gift to Salvini, who had deployed the threat to close Italian ports in the hope of forcing Malta to open theirs.

Although morally commendable, the Spanish decision may therefore harm more than help. Sanchez’s willingness to welcome migrants in Valencia made the Italian government coalition able to claim that the decision to close its much closer ports paid off in obtaining the EU-wide burden sharing in hosting asylum seekers that Rome had previously failed to obtain.

Even if Spain is willing to go beyond this symbolic gesture and keep their ports open, its coasts are too far for the systematic disembarkation of migrants rescued offshore Libya. According to maritime law, people in distress at sea must be disembarked in the nearest place of safety. The disembarkation of migrants in Spain would entail costs that most NGOs are unable to handle, aggravate migrants’ suffering, and cause a shortage of rescuing assets at sea.

Leaving legal and humanitarian concerns aside, Rome’s latest move is also short-sighted in pursuing Italy’s national interests. Although one might be tempted to see Salvini’s brinkmanship as a risky but ultimately successful gamble, a deeper examination of the crisis offshore Libya shows otherwise.

Even if France were to follow Spain in opening its ports on a one-off basis, the occasional disembarkation of few hundred migrants in other European countries is hardly helpful for a country like Italy, which had 181,000 asylum seekers disembarked in their ports in 2016 only. The magnitude of these figures makes the Aquarius standoff nothing more than a pyrrhic victory. If anything, the transfer of few hundreds to Spain may only provide Italy’s EU partners with the possibility to use such sporadic displays of solidarity from Mediterranean coastal states as a surrogate for any meaningful, long-term support.

Moreover, Italy’s confrontational stance came at the price of considerable diplomatic tension. Salvini’s gamble strained Italy’s relations with Malta, France, and Spain, who criticized the closure of Italian ports as illegal, cynical, and even “disgusting”. The Italian government is not entirely off the mark in dismissing the accusations of partners who showed no solidarity in sharing Rome’s burden as hypocritical. A viable, long-term solution to the crisis, however, inevitably requires European allies’ support in reforming the EU asylum system, stabilizing Libya and obtaining cooperation from other migrant transit and origin countries. The diplomatic isolation triggered by Salvini’s confrontational policies will hardly help Italy’s cause.

The Interior Minister’s statements of support towards countries like Hungary cast further doubts over his government coalition’s foreign policy strategies. Indeed, Italy’s willingness to side with right-wing Eastern European governments who firmly oppose asylum seekers’ relocation seems dictated more by ideological sympathy than by the commitment to prioritize Italian national interests Mr Salvini built its political fortunes upon.

The pyrrhic victory over the Aquarius case surely earned the Italian Interior Minister and his policy of closing ports wide support, strengthening the League’s grip over Italy’s government coalition. Salvini’s move, however, seems little more than an electoral stunt disguised as foreign policy. By alienating allies and dilapidating the political capital built by rescuing migrants in the face of lacking EU solidarity, the Aquarius case made a long-term solution to the crisis all the more unlikely, leaving Italy in deep waters like the ship it closed its ports to.

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