​Not Fortress Europe, but 28 short-sighted fortresses

What critical citizens often describe as Fortress Europe, in order to shift the global problems we face to a vague and 'untouchable' level, far outside the range of their own governments, is in fact the story of 28 fortresses, each preferring not help refugees in distress. The European Summit on the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean should be understood in that way, especially the discussions relating to the rescue and redistribution of refugees. Will it be 5,000 or 10,000 ... of the more than 170.000 last year and 36.000 this year.

That is the enduring tragedy of the European Union, in particular that there is, unfortunately, not a ‘Europe’ that can act in the name of European citizens. The EU is a giant with feet of clay, and the 28 toes are all heading in different directions. We see that happening when we try to resolve the financial crisis, in the fight against tax evasion or social dumping, in the approach towards global warming and now, in the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Sensitive issues such as asylum and migration, are member state competences. Although member states are aware that they cannot tackle these problems individually, their unwillingness to do so jointly is greater than this awareness. 

Almost all European commentators pointed out that the failure over the past few days to provide meaningful solutions for the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean is not ‘European’ in nature, but rather the result of the political and economic situation across EU countries. And almost all of them, as the former Dutch ombudsman Alex Sturkenboom recently said, are in the control of mediocre politicians who only think about their personal and national interests. "Better incorrectly spent in my own country, than well spent abroad," was his summary of the problem. Time after time general European interests have to give way to short-sighted national interests.

The difference between the UK and Italy illustrates this clearly. Italy is faced with the refugees; the British Prime Minister David Cameron has to fight Nigel Farage's populist anti-migration agenda and faces a deep-seated euroscepticism that portrays the EU as the root of all evil. Election fever prevents British political leaders from having the courage to boldly explain that the problem is not present in a vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, but within British society itself.

Italy ended its Mare Nostrum program last year because the country - still under heavy pressure from the economic crisis - could not afford the costs and no other member state was willing to contribute. Here again, the lack of solidarity is not a European disease, but a blot on the escutcheon of the 28 member states. The Italian program was replaced by a smaller and much cheaper European loincloth with a mandate limited to monitoring European borders. "Saving human lives is not our priority," Frontex lead man Fabrice Leggeri said on Wednesday.

Cameron didn’t even want to participate in the European Frontex program, out of fear for potential domestic criticism that it would only "attract" extra migrants. The same argument was used by my country’s secretary of state for asylum and migration, the Flemish nationalist Theo Francken. He too wanted to please his voters, not bothered by the facts. Since the abolition of the Italian program the amount of refugees has not reduced; they have chosen more dangerous alternatives, with more deaths as a result. The influx did not stop by closing the routes over land, instead new routes sprung up. Unfortunately the reaction of European leaders is the result of public outrage at the avoidable and unacceptable high death toll, which has shifted the focus from a migration issue to a deep humanitarian crisis. Member state leaders now humbly bend their heads, recognize that the abolishment of the Italian program was a mistake, and then offer peanuts, while telling us they are coconuts. If we really want to offer solutions, we should start acting as a global force, based on humanitarian values that are shared by all Europeans, join forces and show solidarity in all matters European. We should stop acting as feudal lords in our 28 fortresses but show 21st century leadership. United.