Springtime in the Mediterranean: The skies are clear, the waters are calm, and the migrants are drowning. In 2014, the U.S. Border Patrol estimated that 307 people died while being smuggled into the United States from Mexico. So far this year, more than 1,650 people have drowned as they attempted to cross Europe’s most porous and dangerous border, the Mediterranean. In 2014, the Border Patrol “rescued” 509 migrants along the Mexican border. In the third week of April alone, European vessels retrieved 8,500 migrants from the Mediterranean, most of them in the 300-mile stretch between the shores of Libya and Sicily.
Many of the migrants are trafficked out of Africa’s numerous failed states, across the Sahara, and into Libya. Every stage of their journey enriches organized criminals and, in their odyssey’s later stages, Islamist militias too. Smaller numbers of migrants come from Syria. Some are found floating in the water or drifting in dinghies. Others are crammed into rusting pirate ships. All have risked their lives, and many have suffered exploitation and abuse.
The migrants have been drowning quietly for years, but this month, a series of tragedies forced the European Union to acknowledge the crisis, if not to admit its responsibilities. On April 12, 400 Africans drowned when their boat capsized, apparently because they had rushed to one side to greet a rescue ship. On April 16, 40 Africans drowned when their inflatable sank off the Libyan coast. On April 17, Muslim migrants murdered 12 Christians from Ghana and Nigeria by throwing them into the sea. The worst came on April 19. More than 700 people crammed into the lower decks of a 65-foot vessel drowned when it capsized.
Until 2014, Italy policed these waters in a program named, apparently without irony, Our Sea, after the Roman Mare Nostrum. The Italian government suspended the program because of Italy’s chaotic finances, and because other EU nations were unwilling to help. The EU government in Brussels took over and launched Operation Triton, a cheaper and smaller program that patrols only 30 miles from the Italian coast. Although the number of migrants in the first quarter of 2015 was lower than in the first quarter of 2014, the death toll multiplied ten-fold. In Europe’s moral hierarchy, Palestinians rank high, other Arabs low, Africans lower, and African migrants lowest of all.
After the mass drownings of April 19, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, summoned the leaders of the EU states to an emergency summit. For two decades, the EU has tried to control the Mediterranean basin through the Barcelona Process and its spin-offs, the European Neighborhood Policy (2004) and the Union for the Mediterranean (2008). Now, finally facing a genuine pan-Mediterranean crisis, the EU leadership is washing its hands. Even before the summit had convened, EU leaders seemed resolved to return the human and budgetary aspects of the problem to member states.
“I do not expect any quick fix solutions to the root causes of migration,” Tusk declared presidentially, “because there are none.” His foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, bravely asserted that she was not “afraid of showing the limits . . . of the policy-making process.” When Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni complained that Italy has not received an “adequate response” from Brussels, EU spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud protested that there is no “silver bullet” for the migrant problem.
The EU is short of brass bullets, too. It floated the euro before floating a navy. It is the first power in history to offer a major currency without a military guarantee. There is no EU fleet, only the overstretched and underfunded navies of its member states. While the EU combines imperial pretensions with provincial pettiness, its member states behave no better. The Germans wish to manage Greece’s economy but not its borders. The Italians accuse the Greeks of sending migrants to their shores, while themselves shunting migrants into France. The French denounce the Italians, while allowing migrants to camp at the ferry port of Calais so they can leave for Britain. If the EU lacks the means, its members lack the will. Both lack the money.