• For the past 18 days, the Ocean Viking has been looking for a port to disembark in. France and Italy are passing the quid on the subject. How much hypocrisy is there in the governments' posture?

Hypocrisy, righteous reporting, impotence, media drama, NGO overreach, it's all there, and yet, absolutely nothing new. The Ocean Viking is the umpteenth episode in the collective failure of European border control. For a good ten years now, the activities of NGOs in the Mediterranean have been the subject of controversy and have revealed the EU's incapacity.  The most paradigmatic case was that of the Aquarius in 2018, which was banned from docking by Matteo Salvini, then the decried Minister of the Interior and strongman of the Italian government, and finally received with media pomp and circumstance that bordered on obscenity by a Pedro Sánchez who had just come to power. Four years later, the same Sánchez had no problem with the bloody intervention of the Moroccan gendarmerie, which left several dozen dead after the mass entry of thousands of sub-Saharans. From virtuous signaling to "move along, nothing to see", a symptomatic case of this shameless hyprocrisy.

In the current case, the new Italian government is completely consistent. The fight against irregular immigration is one of its electoral promises and Meloni is simply keeping to it. France, for its part, is not legally obliged to receive the migrants (and potential asylum seekers, for some) from the Viking Ocean, but is ready to do so. To unblock the situation, out of a purely humanitarian spirit, out of political recuperation? It's hard to say, but let's remember that the tensions between Paris and Rome over migration are not new. Since 2018, Italy has accused France of turning back migrants between Menton and Ventimiglia, and Paris has reproached Rome for its inability to maintain its maritime border. 

And speaking of hypocrisy, let's be honest and not forget the cynicism of certain NGOs that use migrants more than they serve them for militant purposes and that, voluntarily or involuntarily, play into the hands of traffickers. 

  • Does Europe systematically fall into this trap when the situation arises? How can this be explained?

Yes, without a doubt, migration controversies follow one another and this particular episode is just the tip of the iceberg of a continuous failure with, in the background, two recurring questions: does the EU (including national governments) have the legal means but above all the political will to control their borders? 

Legally, the labyrinth of international conventions, European directives and various jurisprudence casts a huge shadow over border management. The paradigmatic example is the principle of non-refoulement, a concept derived from the Geneva Convention on the right to asylum, but whose abusive invocation paralyses migration policy to a large extent by considering any person crossing a border illegally as a potential asylum seeker. How can a border be controlled with this sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of border guards who feel that doing their job is in itself a crime? 

Another crucial issue is the grey area between rescuing people in distress and controlling borders. Rescuing is a moral duty and a legal obligation. But does that mean landing migrants picked up off the African coast in Europe? No, but that is what is happening, once again under a totally distorted principle of non-refoulement. Manoeuvres that some governments perceive as blackmail to which they no longer wish to give in. And a situation which, once again, points the finger at the very controversial role of NGOs. 

Finally, the political question: is there a clear will to control the borders? Some governments with an external border (Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, to some extent Spain) do so without hesitation. Others are much more hesitant.  But, in my opinion, the real problem lies at the European level. Driven by a European Parliament that is above all a sounding board for the positions of "civil society" rather than an assembly representing European public opinion, the European Commission is very timid in this area. The recent controversy over the resignation of the Director of Frontex is proof of this: under media and political pressure, he threw in the towel, accusing some of wanting to scuttle this agency (the only one with a regalian vocation) from within. In other words, no longer helping Member States to monitor their borders, but rather controlling them when they do so.

  • By trying to reconcile a humanist stance with a firm stance on migration issues, don't the Europeans end up dissatisfying everyone? 

And above all, they end up mired in cacophony, internal tensions and a lack of results, to the great displeasure of public opinion. It is an admission of powerlessness, a lack of foresight and a rather cowardly reflex to take refuge in moral postures with media coverage in order not to govern. This is very serious, on the one hand, because public opinion expects its leaders to take a stand on these issues. The emotion aroused in France by the murder of Lola and the inability to enforce the orders to leave the country is a perfect example. On the other hand, this procrastination threatens one of Europe's most tangible achievements: the free movement of European citizens in a borderless area. Schengen and border control are two sides of the same coin. If Europe as a whole refuses to control its external borders properly, some Member States will be increasingly tempted to control the internal borders between them. 

  • Should Europe take a stronger stance on this issue and get away from hypocrisy?

Yes, of course, it is imperative that it assumes a firmer, geopolitical migration policy, based on the defence of its interests rather than on incantatory "values". But it is unable to do so. It is incapable of agreeing on a common denominator and reaching a consensus. Moreover, too many actors in Europe remain hostage to an approach that is more emotional and moralistic than geopolitical and pragmatic. As a result, too many actors (governments, European institutions) take refuge in a timorous, virtuous posture, without giving themselves the means to be effective on crucial issues that are at the heart of public opinion in many countries. Moreover, Europe has a very good backbone when certain national governments wish to clear themselves of their own incapacity. As a result, Europe as a whole is treading water, as demonstrated by the deadlock on the Migration Pact proposed by the Commission in 2020, which is making little and poor progress towards legislative adoption.  

I sincerely believe that the time has come to ask the question of repatriating to the national level certain competences in the field of migration, particularly concerning border control. If the European level is not effective, then we must turn to the national level. This is called subsidiarity, a principle as cardinal as it is neglected. 

(This is the English translation of an interview with Rodrigo Ballester which originally appeared in French in Atlantico).