Fortress Europe set to keep up barricades

Summit of EU leaders to ignore three core areas involving developing world: economic migration, farm subsidies and trade in people
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The Independent Online

When EU leaders assemble some time before 8pm at a gathering in Greece tonight, their summit agenda will have a depressingly familiar ring: plans for an improved EU visa system, moves to identify vulnerable border crossings and smoother ways to return failed asylum-seekers to their countries of origin.

Strictly off the agenda will be the economic factors that drive migrants half way round the world in search of a better life: the trade barriers that bar access to Third World goods and the billions of euros in subsidies paid to EU farm barons and agribusiness that cause economic ruin in the developing world. The 15 leaders will make no attempt to discuss what connects the flow of asylum-seekers to Europe and the obstacles placed in the way of the goods their countries try to sell us: the arbitrary and punitive duties on Kenyan-cut flowers, for example, or on the surplus EU fruit and vegetables that are dumped on Senegal's fragile market to the detriment of local producers.

Nor is it just the EU that is wreaking havoc across Africa. America, too, specialises in unjust trading practices. It dumps cotton in Mali, food aid in Ethiopia and prevents Vietnamese catfish farmers from selling at a fair price.

Not only goods are at issue: the same economic forces that lead to poverty in the developing world conspire to produce a desperate trade in people, with Mafia-style gangs smuggling an estimated 170,000 people a year into Europe. Many are sold into prostitution.

It is not fair trade but "Fortress Europe" that will dominate the Chalkidiki EU summit. Only pressure from countries such as Germany has forced British ministers to back off proposals to dump asylum-seekers in transit centres just outside the EU's increasingly fortified borders. It is at these camps - in Albania and Croatia - that refugees' claims would be assessed and to which they could be deported as soon as they arrived on British soil.

Outrage at that proposal, nicknamed in Brussels the "concentration camp plan", has led the UK to suggest a second pilot scheme in east Africa, more acceptable to refugee groups, that would stem the flow of refugees - such as those who drowned off southern Italy this week - by providing for "protected zones" nearer home.

While EU farm ministers have been meeting in Luxembourg to debate watered-down changes to the Common Agricultural Policy, which channels about €40bn (£27bn) of subsidies to Europe's farmers, it will not be discussed in Greece. Despite the meeting being the last formal EU summit before global trade talks resume in the autumn, Europe's trade negotiator, Pascal Lamy, will not be present.

The 15 heads of government ignore what prompts the unstoppable flow of migrants, to focus instead on constructing new barriers, a familiar approach. At a summit in Seville last June, Britain and Spain put forward an ill-starred proposal under which Third World countries that did not co-operate with plans to readmit rejected asylum-seekers would face cuts in aid. The idea was damned as "morally repugnant" - not by campaigners, but by Clare Short, who was Secretary of State for Development - and eventually blocked by France, to the disappointment of Tony Blair and the Spanish premier, Jose Maria Aznar.

Elections across Europe, from Denmark to the Netherlands, have exposed "illegal" immigration as a main issue of concern with voters, meaning far-right, maverick and anti-immigration groups are prospering. As Adam Townsend of the Centre for European Reform think-tank puts it: "A lot of the governments across the EU, both centre-right and centre-left, feel they have to move rightwards to keep control of the debate. If they don't, they lose ownership of the issue and open up a space for the far right."

Were EU leaders to stray over the border into Albania, they would see the consequences of some of their policies - such as the activities of Mafia child traffickers who flourish amid the poverty.

According to Oxfam, the EU is spending €20m on bolstering the Albanian police force, twice as much in total as the cash that is going on infrastructure and development. Meanwhile, wheat that is exported from the EU to Albania has provoked a crisis in domestic agriculture driving many farmers out of business, and tens of thousands into illegal work in Greece, Italy or the rest of the EU.

Sam Barratt of Oxfam argues: "The rich countries' trade policies are having a catastrophic impact upon poor farmers lives all around the world which leaves many of them with no other option but trying to seek lives elsewhere.

He added: "All these issues are interconnected: what you sow with one hand you reap with another."

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