Italy has long been the European Union's border-of-choice for would-be migrants, arriving from North Africa to the shores of Sicily. But while the Italian government was hoping for much needed help from the European Union to face the immigration flow, the border dispute between Belarus and Poland has exploded, and diverted attention east and north.
ROME — The tragic images arriving from the Polish-Belarusian border have diverted attention from no less dramatic images elsewhere: starting with the boats landing in Sicily crammed with men showing the injuries from the torture suffered in Libya and women and children who have risked everything to cross the Mediterranean.
The Italian government is isolated as it calls for Europeans to look again toward the Mediterranean and Africa, when the focus right now of most European capitals and European Union institutions is facing eastward.
This is of course understandable: Belarus is attached to Poland and the Baltic countries, on the edges of European Union territory. Beyond that, it is clear that this mass of people pushing to cross into the EU is making Germany very anxious, with Russian President Vladimir Putin's shadow looming over the whole affair.
The case goes far beyond the story of those 10,000 migrants camped in the cold. It has become a strategic issue for the EU that has quickly eclipsed the situation of the Mediterranean.
A European emergency
Italy's Interior Ministry finds itself isolated in its efforts to stem illegal immigration. The European Commission had committed to significant investments in Tunisia, Libya and sub-Saharan countries to keep would-be migrants from setting off for Italian shores.
Only a few months ago, when it seemed that the central Mediterranean route was about to explode, North Africa finally became a European emergency. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson had visited those countries and given her word that Brussels would help them.
The Italian government of Mario Draghi thought it had finally shaken things up, but as the months passed, nothing happened. A little something in Tunisia. Nothing in Libya. Even less below the Sahara.
It is a never-ending river of fleeing people, that shows no sign of drying up.
And the effects are being seen: A mass exodus aboard unstable boats, the remains often recovered later by NGO ships; vessels arriving on their own on the tiny island of Lampedusa south of Sicily, where the reception center is bursting with nearly 1,000 people; the landing of 1000 migrants from the Sea Eye 4 ship in Trapani, Sicily, with another 306 about to arrive in Augusta onboard the Ocean Viking.
It is a never-ending river of fleeing people, led by greedy and unscrupulous smugglers, that shows no sign of drying up, even when the winter seas are turbulent. In such a context, the Italian Interior Ministry looks at the money and attention diverted toward the EU's eastern border with regret.
The Mediterranean can wait
Mario Draghi himself is facing an acceleration he certainly did not expect. It was just last month, at the end of the European Council meeting on immigration in Brussels, that the Italian Prime Minister was reading the summit's final communiqué with satisfaction. The European funding of the wall on the Polish border, he said, "should be proposed by the Commission, which is opposed to it, and approved by the European Council, with whom many of us do not agree."
The purposeful ambiguity of the text, the Italians hoped, would lead to a larger discussion on the EU's immigration policy. Clearly Draghi got a little carried away in his optimism and the hope of resolving an issue that has remained open for years for Italy. This is also confirmed by government diplomatic sources: The dispute over migrants that Belarus is spilling into Poland has suddenly become the priority of the Union. North Africa, Libya, the Mediterranean and everywhere else take a back seat, along with hopes of seeing Europe finally show solidarity with Italy.
Nobody can argue that the "Eastern route" is a source of concern, as it is loaded with geo-strategic implications and possible war scenarios. With Russia at the gates pushing on the borders of countries that previously belonged to the former Soviet area of influence, Europe must act decisively to cover all angles. Once again, it seems, the Mediterranean can wait.
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