COMMENT

The dubious politics of Fortress Europe

Journalist Apostolis Fotiadis examines the changing pattern of the EU’s immigration policy in new book By Harry van Versendaal

An estimated 800 people died on Sunday when a boat packed with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe capsized near Libya. The disaster came a week after two other shipwrecks left some 450 people dead. Little will change as long as European politicians insist on blocking all existing legal ways of setting foot on the continent, claims a new book on the subject of the European Union’s immigration policy.

In “Border Merchants: Europe’s New Architecture of Surveillance” (published by Potamos), Apostolis Fotiadis, an Athens-based freelance investigative journalist, seeks to document a paradigm shift in Europe’s immigration policy away from search and rescue operations to all-out deterrence. The switch, the 36-year-old author argues, plays into the hands of the continent’s defense industry and is being facilitated by the not-so-transparent Brussels officialdom.

“Their solution to the immigration problem is that of constant management because this increases their ability to exploit it as a market. The defense industry would much rather see the protracted management of the problem than a final solution,” Fotiadis said in a recent interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

“Without a crisis there would be no need for emergency measures, no need for states to upgrade their surveillance and security systems,” he said.

Fotiadis claims the trend is facilitated by the revolving door between defense industry executives and the Brussels institutions, which means that conflict of interests is built right into EU policy.

“There is a certain habitat in which many people represent the institutions and at the same time express a philosophy about the common good,” he said.

The book documents the growing interest of Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, in purchasing drones to enhance its surveillance capabilities in the context of its unfolding Eurosur project. Eurosur, a surveillance and data-sharing system that first went into effect in late 2013, relies on satellite imagery and drones to detect migrant vessels at sea.

The author goes back to October 2011 to tell the story of how the Warsaw-based organization hosted and financed a show for companies dealing in aerial surveillance systems in Aktio, northwest Greece. That was, Fotiadis claims, where Greek officials for the first time pondered the idea of acquiring drone technology. Greece is expected to sign a deal later this year.

The European Commission has defended the agency’s moves, saying that it is within the legal obligations of Frontex to participate in the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of the bloc’s external borders.

“What they are doing is not necessarily illegal. However, an entire network of institutions has been held hostage as they have installed a non-transparent mantle behind which they promote their own interests,” he said.

No magic recipe

Fotiadis researched the subject for three years. Access to information was not always easy, he says, as much of what is at stake is decided behind closed doors. Despite the interesting insights, Fotiadis’s gripping book does not offer possible ways out of Europe’s problem. The author holds that efforts to come up with foolproof solutions are in vain. There simply aren’t any.

“There is no specific reason why migration occurs. Hence, there is no magic recipe. It is a constant problem which requires constant adjustment. The point is to have a genuine debate on it – which you don’t have – so that you can carry out the right adjustments,” he said.

More than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of 2015 as people try to escape violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The Italian-run Mare Nostrum, a 9-million-euro-per-month mission launched in the aftermath of the 2013 Lampedusa drownings was ditched because it was deemed costly and politically unpopular. It has been succeeded by a much more limited EU-led mission called Triton.

Although there are no magic solutions, the Europeans could nevertheless shoulder some of the blame for the trouble, Fotiadis says. “The EU’s foreign policy is a push factor. The nature of many of the ongoing crises has in part been influenced by decisions of European states,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy led calls to intervene in Libya in 2011, an idea that found backing among other European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“By no means wishing to defend authoritarian regimes, the current situation is not necessarily better than the previous one,” Fotiadis said, adding that Europeans made similar mistakes on Syria as they continued to arm and fund the rebels even after the situation there had spun out of control.

“Europe likes to present itself as part of the solution while it’s actually part of the problem,” he said.

Significant in the overall process, Fotiadis argues, is the willingness of the EU to gradually externalize its immigration controls, setting up screening centers in the countries of origin – a process which he saw at work in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy.

A 10-point action plan put forward by the European Commission and backed by EU foreign and interior ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday foresees the deployment of immigration liaison officers abroad to gather intelligence on migration flows and strengthen the role of EU delegations. The plan was set to be discussed at an emergency EU summit in Brussels late Thursday. However, according to a report in the Guardian, EU leaders were due to only allow 5,000 refugees to resettle in Europe, with the remainder set to be repatriated as irregular migrants.

‘Sinister bulwark’

The book focuses on Greece which, being part of the EU’s external frontier, has become a major gateway for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East. More than 10,000 people arrived illegally in the first quarter of 2015, while the number is expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the year. Greece’s handling has been mostly awkward but Fotiadis is equally keen to point a finger at the hypocrisy amid the nation’s European partners.

“They want Greece to do the dirty work and, at the same time, criticize it for any human rights’ violations. They know very well what goes on here, but they keep sending funds to keep this sinister bulwark in place,” he said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups have in the past accused Frontex of turning a blind eye to the torture, beating and systematic degradation of undocumented migrants.

Does debt-hit Greece have what it takes to deal with the problem? For one thing, Fotiadis argues, the country has never seen a proper debate on the issue of immigration while news coverage has been largely hijacked by populist and scaremongering media.

“The topic has been communicated in a hysterical, vulgar manner. When the discourse is that of ‘hordes of invading immigrants,’ there is inevitably very little room for a reasonable reaction,” he said. “Throw them in the sea or else they will eat us alive,” said the headline of an ultra-conservative tabloid published ahead of the interview.

Otherwise, Fotiadis believes, there is no reason Greece should not be able to set up some basic infrastructure to deal with the influx. He says that the number of immigrants and refugees received by the EU is in fact small compared to the more than 1.5 million refugees who have found shelter in Turkey due to civil war in Syria. Jordan is estimated to be home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, while one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Meanwhile, the EU, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, with a combined population of over 500 million, last year took in less than 280,000 people.

“All that hysteria is a knee-jerk overreaction to an illusory version of reality,” he said.

As the death toll of people trying to reach Greece rises, Fotiadis was happy to see leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras call for greater European solidarity to deal with the problem and plead for “diplomatic initiatives” to help resolve the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

He also defends the leftist-led government’s controversial decision to shut down migrant detention facilities across the country, saying that its conservative predecessors had abused the legal detention limits. However, he argues the government should have been better prepared to deal with the consequences of that decision.

“As with many other issues, they were well-intended but ill-prepared,” he said.

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