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Where Europe Ends

As the recent Lampedusa immigration tragedy shows, the idea of Europe ends when we back away from a notion of shared responsibility.

by Katerina Safarikova 16 October 2013

When a boat with hundreds of refugees sank near the island of Lampedusa at the beginning of this month leaving more than 300 dead, one comment echoed through much of the European press, including in Italy’s Corriere della Sera. Europe, which often elbows its way into our daily lives with rules it says are in everyone’s interest, has failed to shoulder its share of the burden when policing our southern borders, went the Milanese newspaper. Hence Europe as a concept has failed, underlined many others.


But it’s not the imaginary Europe that has shirked its duty. It is we who have failed. More specifically, it’s the political representatives of each nation that makes decisions at the European table in Brussels. Sharing the burden of the influx of refugees in borderline states of the EU has been a topic in Brussels since 1999, when the Amsterdam Treaty mentioned a common immigration and asylum policy. And some steps have been taken since, such as the common EU list of countries whose citizens do not need a visa to move around on European soil.


But many things remain to be resolved, and spreading around the burden of immigrants is the most pressing. The principle is simple: Immigrants and asylum seekers should be accommodated in more states than just those where they land, as to do otherwise is neither sustainable nor fair, said the Swedish presidency of the EU in 2009, which tabled the motion.


In practical terms that would mean that when a boat reaches Lampedusa with hundreds of people on board, the ones with urgent medical problems would stay on the island while the others would move on to refugee camps and detention centers in other European countries, with the redistribution following agreed-upon benchmarks.


Most EU members balk at this idea, as they cannot agree on how to set those benchmarks.


It’s not a simple task. Take Belgium, for instance, where foreigners make up 11 percent of the population. Does that relatively high figure mean that Belgium gets a break and other states shouldn’t pressure it by sending dozens of the Lampedusa survivors there? Or does it mean that, as Belgians are rather accustomed to foreigners, they might easily cope with a few more?


For we know that xenophobia and uneasiness with strangers often stem from the “unknown.” Look at the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Poland, all of which have few foreign citizens living on their soil – 4 percent, 1.3 percent, and 0.1 percent respectively, according to Eurostat – with non-Slavs a rarity. Still, officials from these countries were the first to raise their voice against sharing the burden of immigrants in 2009 – and have stayed silent in the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy.


That’s not to say the ministers are xenophobes. Their stance only mirrors what they think their people can swallow. According to various surveys, the Czechs and the Poles are uneasy with foreigners, with roughly two of three Czechs not wanting a foreigner as their neighbor.


Only this week, a leader of one political party aiming to make it into parliament in the Czech elections at the end of this month said in a televised debate that immigration is a threat to Czech society and that only immigrants with “sufficient moral qualities” should be allowed to live in the country.


So even if the Czechs are relatively well-off – compared with Portugal or Greece – and live with a comparatively manageable 400,000 foreigners in a population of more than 10 million, their elected representatives have long been saying “no” to what they refer to as “additional financial and social burdens,” in other words hosting refugees, when the issue is on the European table in Brussels.


You can go state by state across the EU and you will always end up here. States are busy with their own business. Political representatives fear the loss of their popularity at home and fear the loss of their powers too, since a functioning burden-sharing of Lampedusan newcomers would inevitably mean the loss of national vetoes.


As the head of the Danish office of the International Organization for Migration noted recently, immigrants in Europe are no longer seen as “heroes or poor fellows” as they were in the 1970s or 1980s, with the Iron Curtain still in place and the economy booming. Today they’re seen as a problem.


Reflecting on the recent conversation about immigration sparked by the boat tragedy, one thing seems suddenly clear: This is where the EU’s borders lie. Many books have been written and debates wasted over the question of where Europe, free and united, ends. Is it on the Turkish-Syrian border? In Israel? In Russia?


Now we know. It’s on Lampedusa.

Katerina Safarikova 
is a journalist with Czech Television.
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