Jean-Claude Juncker knows how to talk the talk. The keynote of his state of the union address in Strasbourg on Tuesday was compassion: “We can build walls and we can build fences,” the president of the European commission appealed, “but imagine if it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you, there is no price you would not pay, there is no wall you would not climb.”
But Juncker’s rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the initiatives lately undertaken by the European commission (EC). On the podium officials may bare their bleeding hearts, yet in the background they silently continue to build up a security apparatus that will provide oversight and total control over population influxes towards and from the external borders of the union. Commentators have taken to describing the lack of a coordinated mechanism for processing refugees as “a failure” on behalf the EC and the EU member states. This is missing the point. The refugee crisis is not a failure, but entirely consistent with the commission’s strategic priorities on immigration and border control policies.
For years the policy of the commission has been to invest in the creation of a restrictive institutional infrastructure to discourage population influxes at the external frontiers of the European Union. The human tragedy in the Mediterranean and the Aegean doesn’t appear to have forced the commission to alter its priorities.
Last week, the EU commissioner for immigration Dimitris Avramopoulos and the vice-president of the commission Frans Timmermans visited Greece to monitor the situation. Their policy priority was to speed up the establishment of a multi-purpose centre for screening and identifying migrants’ and refugees’ nationalities. This is tightly connected with the commission’s announced purpose since last April to establish speedy return procedures managed by Frontex. Instead of questioning the priorities of the commission, local media repeated the mantra that €475m had been made available to help Greece deal with immigration. But what exactly is the money for?
The British whistleblower Statewatch gave us an answer when it uploaded the Internal Security Fund’s spending programme for Greece, greenlighted by the commission last July. The document is nothing short of an arms race wishlist, including the purchase of coastal patrol vessels, drones, patrolling vehicles carrying infrared cameras, large scale equipment appropriate for joining Frontex’s operation as well as hi-tech surveillance, data and biometric equipment to enhance the super-surveillance systems the commission is gradually establishing at Europe’s borders. The procurement of security goodies amounts to €187m: as much as two-fifths of the money Avramopoulos has promised. This year’s other main beneficiaries of the fund, amounting to a total of €3.7bn until 2020, are Italy, Spain, Malta and France.
While Europe’s states are laying into each other over a coordinated quota system for receiving refugees, their cooperation on boosting Fortress Europe is running more and more smoothly. Last week the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Federica Mogherini, proposed authorising the transition to phase two of the operation Eunavfor Med, put into place after the last major Lampedusa tragedy last April. Phase one of the operation deployed an aircraft carrier, eight warship and submarine naval units and 12 air assets, ie planes and helicopters. Military assets and personnel are provided by the contributing states while their expense is being met on a national basis. It amounts to many millions monthly. There is also a common budget put aside by European funds of €11.82m, which is available for a 12-month period.
According to a document of the EU military committee, leaked by Wikileaks last May, phase two of the operation would mean “embarking and handling of migrants in international waters, including the potential readmission at the point of departure, boarding and neutralising of vessels, detaining and/or prosecuting individuals (smugglers) and possible transfer of detainees to Third State jurisdiction”. EEAS has previously been informed that the operation runs the risk of harming innocent people. An internal planning document for the operationexposed by the Guardian last May conceded that the campaign could result in innocent people being killed: “Boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.”
Next time Juncker talks about the need to prioritise saving lives and dignity of refugees, someone should ask him how he can square such claims with a policy that prioritises raising obstacles to people fleeing conflict and turning Europe into a hi-tech fortress.
Published first at Guardian.com / Comment is Free