Notes From the Margins…

Beyond Satire

  • April 27, 2011
  • by

The spectacle of Berlusconi and Sarkozy, two of the sleaziest and most cynical rightwing politicians in Europe, calling for a revision of the ‘borderless’ Schengen Area in response to the recent arrivals of undocumented migrants from North Africa is not an edifying sight.

For years the European Union provided weaponry and political support to the Tunisian and Libyan dictatorships, in exchange for oil,   gas and investment opportunities – and also in return for cooperation by the rulers of both countries in preventing undocumented migration  to Europe.

Such cooperation was reflected in bilateral ‘friendship’ agreements between Italy and Libya; in joint naval patrols, in financial and technical assistance for Tunisian and Libyan border guards and coastguard; in funds for the construction of detention centres, and in a general willingness to overlook the inconvenient fact that these new ‘co-partners’ happened to be dictatorships.

From the point of view of immigration control, the system worked well   Migrant boats in the Mediterranean were routinely pushed back’   by the Italian navy into Libyan and Tunisian territorial waters without any need to assess whether their passengers were in need of refugee protection.

Migrants would then be detained in  subhuman and largely unregulated detention centres  before being   deported   on charter flights or simply abandoned in the desert.   Apart from a few pesky human rights organizations, no one bothered to ask what happened to these deportees or where they were being sent.

Even when a European Commission technical mission visited some Libyan detention centres in 2005 and found them wanting, the pushbacks continued and the new love affair between Gadaffi and Europe continue to blossom year after year.

Italy was particularly satisfied with these arrangements, and its politicians could brag that an ‘invasion’ had been prevented.     But Sarkozy was no less content, since Ben Ali’s cooperation also prevented French-speaking Tunisian migrants from coming to France. The European Union could continue to proclaim itself to be a ‘Europe of asylum’ while simultaneously ensuring that refugees never reached European territory to put these principles to the test.

These were happy years, for Sarkozy and Ben Ali:

Or Berlusconi and Gaddafi:

But then the ‘Arab spring’ brought these friendships   to an unexpected and premature end,   as the toppling of Ben Ali was followed by the uprisings in Libya.     As soon as it became clear that these movements could not be suppressed by the usual means,   Europe suddenly rediscovered human rights and democracy.

There was Sarkozy refusing to grant the Ben Ali family refuge in France.   There was  Berlusconi condemning the ‘unacceptable’ violence used by Gaddafi to suppress the Libyan revolt.   Then Europe made war on Libya in order to save its population from the dictator its governments would otherwise still be supporting.

All this felt good and even noble.    But the political chaos that followed the fall of Ben Ali and the ongoing civil war in Libya   also resulted in a new influx of migrants from Tunisia and Libya, and that has not felt so good.

So now Berlusconi and Sarkozy want to reassert the ability to close their national borders and ‘reform’ one of the key components of European integration, while simultaneously calling for new repatriation (deportation) agreements with their North African ‘co-partners.’

And the same politicians who previously embraced the region’s dictators both physically and politically have pledged their support for democratic revolutions in the Maghreb and the Middle East, on condition that these governments perform the same role that Ben Ali and Gadaffi once played.

All this is only fair, since as the Berlusconi/ Sarkozy statement puts it so well:

In exchange we have the right to expect from our partner countries a commitment to a rapid and efficacious co-operation with the European Union and its member states in fighting illegal immigration.

Impressive, n’est-ce pas?




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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