Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


Migration continues to challenge the internal political stability of European countries – and the solidarity of the EU itself. It is doing so even though it is sharply down on its 2015 peak: there were 37,000 migrants who reached Greece, Italy and Spain by sea so far in 2018. The numbers for Italy alone are 77% down.

The domestic political effects, though, are becoming ever sharper – as we are seeing in Italy, Austria and elsewhere. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and the main architect of the crisis, is the latest leader to find herself in the firing line.

Since numbers are down, and there has been no surge, this is mainly because of a ‘re-traumatisation’ of public opinion following corruption scandals involving Iraqi Yazidis and the refugee agency, and another shocking story of how an Iraqi asylum-seeker was able to flee Germany (with his entire family) after raping and murdering a 14 year-old German girl.

Merkel rightly argues that the migration problem can only be solved at a pan-European level, rather than through beggar-thy-neighbour ad hoc measures
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The two allied German conservative parties – Merkel’s Christian Democractic Union (CDU) , which is bi-confessional and national, and the more right-wing cover version, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which stands in Bavaria alone – are taking different directions over the issue. The CSU’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, wants to capitalise on public opinion and take a stand on immigration anticipating the regional elections on 14th October. He fears that the far right party, Alternativ für Deutschland, could well deny the CSU its governing majority; his anxiety is intensified by the AfD’s all-time high of 16% in the latest polls.

Many in Merkel’s CDU agree with Seehofer, angry that the chancellor has tacked to the Left in her painstakingly built but lackluster coalition with the Social Democrats. And some suspect a right-wing ‘putsch’ against her by the CSU’s chairman Alexander Dobrindt and Markus Söder1 – Seehofer’s successor as Bavarian Minister President – who would like to see Jens Spahn succeed Merkel as CDU leader, rather than the softer option of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

There is a way to deal with migration into Europe, but no one is doing it: police the external borders and stem the flow of migrants at source deep in Africa
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Seehofer, meanwhile, has alighted on what is called ‘secondary movement’ to make his anti-migrant stand2 – even though the main migration problem is the porosity of Europe’s southern maritime frontiers with Africa. In his otherwise uncontentious 63 point ‘migration masterplan’, Seehofer said he would instruct the Bavarian police to return any illegal asylum seeker to the first EU state in which they had their fingerprints taken.

Since most recent migrants arrive in Italy, that has infuriated the new populist government in Rome, which has had to cope with 600,000 migrants debouching from North Africa since 2015. Only last week, Matteo Salvini, the new Lega Italian interior minister, refused to admit 600 refugees on a rescue ship – or ‘taxi service for people smugglers’ as he put it – forcing the boat to stay at sea until the new socialist prime minister of Spain allowed it to dock in Valencia.

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Merkel rightly argues that the migration problem can only be solved at a pan-European level, rather than through beggar-thy-neighbour ad hoc measures whose net effect would be to jeopardise freedom of movement for indigenous EU citizens. But she is not above such tactics herself (at their bilateral summit in Meseburg Castle, President Macron agreed to prevent migrants crossing from France into Germany) and Merkel herself convened a mini-summit in Brussels at the weekend to win support from the ten countries represented.

But after it became clear that France and Germany were trying to rig the agenda to focus on secondary movement, rather than bolstering external frontiers, the new Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte threatened not to turn up. Nor did invitees include the Visegrad Group – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – whose leaders have resisted every effort to impose (German-style) quotas of refugees across the EU, despite these four being net beneficiaries of EU structural funding. Although these leaders are at one with Salvini in wanting a Christian and white Europe, they are the main obstacle to his desire to see the burden on Italy lifted through a quota system.

Migration is a subject which lends itself to hysteria, sound-bites and stunts
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Rather grandly, Seehofer claims that he is the fairytale prince who has kissed the dormant EU princess awake with a big smacker. And he has probably done enough to distance the CSU from Merkel in the crucial next three months by delivering an ultimatum over migrant expulsions. In fact, his threats to collapse the coalition over the issue are empty, since the chancellor can easily compensate for a CSU walk-out by bringing the Greens into government with the SPD instead – that was her first preference after the election after all. But if Seehofer does follow up on his threats ahead on 1stJuly by unilaterally ordering the expulsion of migrants, Merkel can sack him; if she doesn’t, the SPD will walk too.

Migration is a subject which lends itself to hysteria, sound-bites and stunts. When looked at dispassionately, there are very few heroes in this saga.

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In Italy, Salvini is using the migration issue to boost his party in the polls vis à vis his milquetoast Five Star ally Luigi Di Maio. It’s all part of his plan to create an entirely right-wing government, consisting of the Lega and what is left of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. He should be tackling the mafia’s disgraceful role in what is a €6 billion people smuggling trade. Instead, he has threatened to remove police bodyguards from Roberto Saviano, the writer whose chilling book Gomorrahexposed the Neapolitan camorra, after Saviano dubbed Salvini ‘the king of the underworld’.

There is a way to deal with migration into Europe, but no one is doing it: police the external borders and stem the flow of migrants at source deep in Africa. Frontex, the European border agency, should be transformed into a much larger permanent external border force, with its HQ moved from Warsaw – a byproduct of EU pork barrel politics – to somewhere on the frontline of the migration crisis, like Athens or Rome.

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The accelerated processing of migrants should happen in dedicated ‘hotspots’ in Europe, or better still, at ‘regional disembarkation platforms’, the euphemism for Australian-style offshore detention camps in North Africa. Officials could determine who was a genuine refugee requiring temporary protection, and who was an economic chancer. This would depend on cooperation from the governments of Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia – forget Libya, which has been so ruined by Anglo-French intervention that it is a congeries of warring militias and not a functioning state.

The EU needs to push much further southwards into Africa to tackle this problem by outsourcing part of it
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Offshore EU naval operations could also be augmented with special forces raids to destroy the boats used to smuggle migrants. (Friends of mine in the SAS and SBS who operated in Libya say that would be entirely feasible for several special forces troops in the EU, not least the Italians who are top notch.)

Finally, the EU needs to push much further southwards into Africa to tackle this problem by outsourcing part of it. It cost the US something in the order of $115 billion (in present values) to seed the reconstruction of war torn western Europe after 1948. Since 2010, the three financial bailouts to Greece since have cost €275 billion. A fraction of that has already been seen to go a long way in helping a poor country like Burkina Faso acquire the jeeps and radios to cauterise migration, with better wages for frontier guards and draconian penalties for smugglers who seek to corrupt them. This needs to be generalised across the ‘push-countries’, along with social media campaigns warning of death by drowning and the chill wind migrants will experience in Europe.

Finally there is one more thing that needs to happen. This crisis in not all about Angela Merkel and her blasted legacy. Whether or not she survives as chancellor, after 13 years in power – and opinion polls in Germany say she will – Merkel is the last person who should be ‘coordinating’ the rectification of a crisis her own reckless humanitarianism largely caused three years ago.

A dedicated migration tsar must be given the power to compel the cooperation of every single EU government, with financial penalties if need be too
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The problem requires a dedicated migration Tsar, and not the hapless Dimitris Avramopolos – Commissioner for Migration since you all wondered – with a clear mandate to grip this problem (including in the diplomatic arena) and with the power to compel the cooperation of every single EU government, with financial penalties if need be too.

Even the bumptious and nasty Viktor Orban can be brought to heel if the money ceases to flow. It certainly does not require a weary German chancellor whose customary box of political tricks no longer work in Germany, let alone with anyone else.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  Strikingly, Söder has just banned Merkel from any campaigning in Bavaria before October; he has invited Austria’s boy chancellor, Christian Kurz instead as the star guest
  2.  Once a migrant is safely inside the EU they will move around, looking for the best deal available, which has tended to mean Germany and Sweden. And Bavaria has become the prime destination for migrants on the Balkan route through Austria