Spain Rescued a Ship. It Won’t Rescue Europe.

The new Spanish prime minister has refused to follow Italy in a race to the bottom, but that doesn’t mean that Madrid will lead the EU to adopt more humane migration policies.

The first migrants from the Aquarius, a ship that was turned away by Italy and Malta sparking a major migration row in Europe, disembarked at the Spanish port of Valencia on June 17, 2018.
The first migrants from the Aquarius, a ship that was turned away by Italy and Malta sparking a major migration row in Europe, disembarked at the Spanish port of Valencia on June 17, 2018. (PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)

When Italy refused to allow a ship carrying hundreds of migrants rescued at sea to dock at one of its ports in early June, Spain unexpectedly came to the rescue.

Four years into the largest refugee crisis to strike Europe in decades, the hide-and-seek game played by former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was abruptly ended by the new administration of Pedro Sánchez. The decision to admit the Aquarius into Valencia’s harbor was both a moral and symbolic triumph for Spain, showing that the country is not afraid to row against the populist tide unleashed by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and his xenophobic comrades across Europe.

There will likely be more of these symbols in the months to come. The decision on the Aquarius is part of a migrant-friendly stance that includes a proposal to eliminate barbed wire at the borders that separate Spain’s Ceuta and Melilla enclaves from Morocco and a commitment to guarantee asylum rights. Spain could also start to improve its shameful record in refugee resettlement and relocation — so far a mere 11 percent of the agreed EU quota by the September 2017 deadline. Most important, the new Socialist government will restore undocumented migrants’ full health coverage, reversing a 2012 decision by Rajoy’s government.

Each of these steps is a corrective to a period during which Spain’s migration policies became regressive at home and hopelessly vague at the European level. The question now is whether Spain’s domestic shift will evolve into a genuine challenge to the current state of affairs in Europe. That would mean fighting within the European Union for an alternative to Brussels’ immoral and self-defeating migration regime. In this regard, unfortunately, refugee advocates are likely to be disappointed.

Over the last 20 years, neither Spain nor the Socialist Party have been moral exemplars. On the contrary, Spain was a laboratory for the model adopted later by the EU. Abundant immigration flows followed the economic expansion of the 1990s and the 2000s. Between 2000 and 2010, almost 5 million migrants arrived in the country, mainly from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. As is often the case, most of them integrated naturally and found opportunities in the construction and tourism sectors; some moved elsewhere or returned home when the economic boom ended after 2008.

But it was the 2005 to 2007 “cayuco” crisis, when 70,000 migrants reached Spanish shores via the West Africa to Canary Islands route, that changed everything. In response to Europe’s habit of looking elsewhere, the government of then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero consolidated the logic of securitization and externalization of migration control that became widespread in the following years.

Between December 2005 and October 2010, nearly a dozen migration control and repatriation agreements were signed or implemented between Spain and countries in West and North Africa. In some cases — such as Senegal and Mauritania — the agreements included the physical presence of Spanish police forces. The fences around Ceuta and Melilla were reinforced, Spain’s integrated external surveillance system — a technologically sophisticated mechanism to detect irregular maritime movements towards the border — was established, and Spain created a comprehensive Africa plan to promote development cooperation with the region.

Private companies and organizations played an increasingly significant role in all of these policies. In fact, the privatization of migration policies is another area where Spain has shown Europe the way. An investigation by the journalistic foundation porCausa found that a migration control industry covering four critical sectors has been booming. This industry handles border protection and surveillance, detention and expulsion of irregular migrants, reception and integration of migrants through temporary and long-term programs, and externalization of the control of migration flows in third countries.

Between 2007 and 2016, porCausa was able to identify 943 public contracts worth more than $700,000. Ten out of the 350 identified companies — mostly focused on border protection and surveillance — receive more than half of the total funding and have secured a critical position in any future technological and logistical development of the system. The similarities between this business and the defense industry are striking, not least because the former is potentially vulnerable to the same risks of policy capture that have been observed in the latter — a situation in which companies are able to influence the laws and institutions affecting them.

In less than a decade, the EU has replicated and expanded the Spanish migration model. As in Spain after 2007, politicians across Europe have focused their rhetoric and energy exclusively on irregular crossing attempts, which averaged approximately 980,000 per year from 2015 to 2017 according to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, rather than legal entries, of which there were an average of about 4.5 million per year across the EU from 2014 to 2016, according to the latest figures from Eurostat.

This was reflected in the 2015 European Agenda on Migration, which ignored previous attempts to provide a comprehensive approach to human mobility that sought to govern movement of people rather than control it. Serious policies that would align economic migration with labor market signals and demographic trends and build real partnership agreements with origin countries based on mutual trust and common institutions were sidelined.

This is a fundamental paradox of Europe’s migration regime. The EU’s societies and economies depend upon human mobility, and most arrivals take place in an ordered, predictable, and legal way. Yet, the inability of EU member states to confront the humanitarian crisis at their borders even when the numbers are decreasing — with current irregular inflows back to pre-2015 levels — is contaminating everything else. Major political instruments such as aid, in critical foreign territories such as the Sahel, have been subordinated to the goal of deterring a few thousand desperate people trying to reach the EU. These misplaced priorities are distorting Europe’s moral compass and changing its politics beyond recognition.

The scariest consequence is the spread of what French President Emmanuel Macron recently called the “leprosy” of populism.

And on this count so far, Spain has been dramatically different from the rest of Europe. The absence of any kind of representative xenophobic political movement is rooted in a combination of factors: four decades of a fascist dictatorship that is a not-so-distant memory; a long history of Spanish emigration to Europe and Latin America, a process that resumed during the Great Recession a decade ago; a reasonable integration process facilitated by cultural commonalities and access to essential public services; and a mainstream conservative party, the Popular Party, that has been able to contain and restrain its most radical factions.

This anomaly could soon come to an end. Spurred by conflict with Catalan separatists and the need to gain or maintain their electoral base, both the Popular Party and Ciudadanos, a rising center-right party, have brandished the flags of nation and identity. When slogans such as “patriotism” and “territorial integrity” are presented in opposition to others, they constitute a disguised yet powerful form of anti-immigration rhetoric.

When it comes to migration and refugee policies, Spain is not essentially different from the rest of Europe. The only reason why the current Spanish government appears to be moving forward is because most of the other EU member states are moving backwards. The real litmus test of Sánchez’s leadership will be if he can move beyond symbolic gestures and demonstrate he has the vision and the political will to promote a European migration policy based both on principles and enlightened self-interest.

Unfortunately, he missed his first opportunity to stand out from the crowd last week during the migration summit and European Council meeting in Brussels. In both cases, Sánchez and other European moderate leaders trapped themselves in the discussion of euphemisms such as “disembarkation platforms,” showing just how effectively populist xenophobes have captured the narrative and the political initiative in this debate. But the new Spanish prime minister should know that it is possible to be right and alone at the same time, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel proved at the beginning of this crisis. Unless more governments break the logic of the lowest common denominator and stand up to denounce the moral and practical race to the bottom led by Italy, Austria, and Eastern European leaders, the EU is doomed politically.

On that front, for the time being, Spain will not come to the rescue.

Gonzalo Fanjul is an economist, researcher, activist, and co-founder of the porCausa Foundation. Twitter: @GonzaloFanjul

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