So inured are we to these trends that we sometimes forget the magnitude of Italy’s slide from grace. Once it was a dynamic, fast-growing engine of growth in the old European community: the Treaty of Rome was aptly named. Christian Democracy endowed the country with decades of stable rule, despite frequent rotations of prime minister.
No longer. Now Italy finds itself the second biggest joke in the west, after Trump.
Not a very funny joke, either. When the French minister for European affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, compares him to the man responsible for Jesus Christ’s judicial murder, she has a point: “Mr Salvini today, he’s like Pontius Pilate. It’s obscene.” French president Emmanuel Macron is quoted as saying Italy has “decided to no longer follow international law, in particular humanitarian maritime law”.
Dramatic words, undiplomatic too, but fair in such extreme circumstances. Salvini is like Pontius Pilate, refusing to take responsibility, washing his hands of blame, cruel and callous.
The rule should be that the humanitarian response to the imminent loss of life at sea is to preserve that life: save lives first, ask questions later. It is what the German and Swedish governments have done, almost alone in Europe, during the Syrian migrant crisis.
Yet Italy, like Greece and Malta, has had to take a disproportionate share of the task of policing Europe’s borders, taking in migrants, including refugees, and the Italians been given scant support by their European “partners” (who also simultaneously demand financial austerity from their southern neighbours).
Even Jean-Claude Juncker, the retiring president of the European Commission, admitted as much in his valedictory speech to the European Parliament. The EU has feeble border and security resources, and an even more feeble sense of solidarity among the 28 states that should be joining together to construct a clear, coherent plan to deal with the greatest mass movement of people since the Second World War. They cannot just leave it to the Italians, Maltese and Greeks to cope as best they can, exploiting the basic decency of their peoples. Apart from a diplomatic agreement with Turkey that has helped stemmed the tide, Europe has been, frankly, like Pontius Pilate itself.
So the Italians should accept the boats, they shouldn’t obstruct the aid agencies; they should show the best of Italian spirit and hospitality. There is no need to demonise migrants as a problem, meantime. They should do their best to process the migrants coming to their shores. In return, they really should receive more money and personnel from richer EU neighbours to help them.
The Italians should do their moral duty, unconditionally. However, there is this question of Europe and France also evading duties. The fact that the French have chosen to hide behind EU conventions about “frontline states” and first ports of arrival means that they have laid themselves open to Italian verbal retaliation.
Salvini accuses Macron of hypocrisy: “We do not accept lessons on rights or humanity from Mr Macron.” He claims that France has turned back more than 50,000 migrants from the Italian border “in recent months”. Maybe; but, as the British say, “two wrongs do not make a right”.
France has declined to set up processing centres for migrants, and, when the Italians turned away the Aquarius migrant boat, the French also found excuses not to offer the ship and its desperate occupants a safe berth in France. Pontius Pilate springs to mind again.
Thus is the migrant crisis continuing to rip Europe apart. Just as matter of fact, the failure to exercise political leadership in an EU with porous borders is feeding extremist parties – populists of the right and left. More and more in Europe’s proportional representation parliaments they are catching a fifth, maybe a third of the vote – enough to block stable coalition governments from forming and taking the firm action needed to deal with the crisis: a vicious circle.
In some countries, notably Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and benighted Italy, the extremists are in power; in Austria, they are in coalition; in the Netherlands and Denmark, they are knocking at the door. In France, Macron is running scared still of Marine le Pen’s Front National. In Britain, migration-phobia is, evidently, part of the reason for Brexit. The crisis has arisen because almost all of Europe’s governments have behaved like Pontius Pilate. History will not remember them fondly, either.
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