By Arab News
By Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
The EU leaders’ meeting in Brussels last week was dubbed the “mother of all summits” because it was convened to deal with extremely difficult issues, including migration, Brexit and the threats from Russia. Key among the issues was the idea of building up Europe’s defenses in light of skepticism about the cross-Atlantic alliance.
But the issue of migration dominated the news coverage of a summit held in the shadow of growing populism throughout Europe, epitomized by the victory of a right-wing coalition in Italy, one of the EU’s founding members. The summit also highlighted the growing challenges to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership in Europe and within Germany itself.
The summit was especially important because it was held following the failure of the G-7 meeting in Canada, where the Western alliance showed pronounced strains, with US President Donald Trump cutting short his participation and publicly exchanging barbs with his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Talk about building a native European defense capability (without the US), which had been discussed as a possibility before, had become more pronounced since the G-7 summit and was a key subject of discussion at the EU summit.
Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament president, dramatically compared Europe’s migration crisis to the devastating Second Punic War of nearly 2,300 years ago, which pitted the Carthaginians (from Carthage in present day Tunisia) against the Romans (from Italy). He is reflecting what some Europeans think about the situation. Such apocalyptic views have fueled the rise of the extreme right in Italy and across Europe. Echoes of the Crusades, Ottoman wars, and now the Punic Wars have all been drummed up to change the discourse from averting a humanitarian crisis in Africa and the Middle East to ramping up the defenses of fortress Europe.
It appears as if the summit has succumbed to the fear of refugees and migrants — xenophobia stoked and exploited by right-wing groups. The new Italian leadership claimed victory at the EU summit. New Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte left the meeting by saying that the deal on migration meant that “Italy is no longer alone.” After the recent change in its leadership, Rome has refused to allow ships carrying refugees and migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East to land on its shores. Italy is indeed not alone; several EU members have repeatedly and stubbornly flouted international law and EU regulations in dealing with these hapless guests. But will this be EU policy now, after the summit, as Conte claimed?
Although the deal fell short of what refugee and migrant groups had hoped, some thought it was ceding too much to the refugee advocates. Following the summit, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced that he was considering resigning from his cabinet post, as well as his role as head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, thus threatening to unravel the governing coalition that Merkel worked so hard to preserve.
People in the Gulf have a hard time understanding European fears. The 28 EU states have a combined population of about 515 million and a GDP of about $17 trillion. Yet they are not able to devise a policy to absorb a relatively small influx of refugees and migrants. You would think that a continent of this size and resources would be able to accommodate these numbers quite easily, either temporarily or for the longer haul. Even an influx of 10 million people would only add 2 percent to the population of the EU’s member states; hardly a reason for alarm. The numbers under discussion are much smaller, of course.
By comparison, the Gulf Cooperation Council member states have a total native population of about 27 million and a GDP of about $1.6 trillion, yet host about 23 million guest workers from all over the world, representing about 46 percent of their total population. The workers are able to support their families living with them and those relatives who have stayed behind in their parent countries. They are able to travel back and forth safely and with little disruption to their family life. The remittances they send to their home countries contribute significantly to their economic development and to the welfare of their families and the towns in which they live. Workers from countries suffering from civil war or other turmoil, such as Syria and Yemen, are allowed to stay on until conditions in their home countries improve.
What we have in the Gulf is not always an ideal arrangement, but it is certainly preferable to the way Europe has dealt with the influx of refugees and migrants. Thousands have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. Many more are languishing in refugee centers throughout Europe. Last November, the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published the names of 33,293 refugees and migrants who died trying to reach Europe, listing their ages and countries of origin. In 2016, there were 3,533 attacks on refugees across Germany alone, while 217 refugee organizations and volunteers were also attacked.
The miniscule number of refugees and migrants has not prevented right-wing parties from exploiting their presence for expedient political purposes. Hate-mongering and false accusations have been effectively used by those groups to rise to power. The crisis has eroded traditional European institutions and weakened moderate leaders such as Merkel, who is among a small minority of European leaders to have advocated a policy of admitting refugees and migrants before sending them to processing centers to sift the refugees from economic migrants.
The “solution” for the migrant crisis heralded by right-wing factions following the EU summit could accelerate the demise of the center in European politics. According to European observers, Merkel’s authority within the EU has been diminished as a result of this summit. Her rivals in Germany could also take advantage of her weakened position to dislodge her from her roles as chancellor of Germany since 2005 and leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union since 2000, which she has so far tenaciously defended. If her interior minister goes ahead with his resignation, all bets are off about how stable her government is.
*Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @abuhamad1