Middle Israel: Where can Europe lead its African shame?

It’s easy to dismiss such words as the kind of European crocodile tears with which the Jewish nation is all too familiar.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon  (photo credit: REUTERS)
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Europe is weeping.
“The voices of mothers who lost their children at sea will haunt our consciences,” last week wrote Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, after the Mediterranean swallowed 800 migrants near the capsized vessel on which they had hoped to sail from African misery to European hope.
It’s easy to dismiss such words as the kind of European crocodile tears with which the Jewish nation is all too familiar. It would also be unfair.
Europe is genuinely perplexed in the face of the immigrant influxes approaching its shores, a feeling expressed powerfully by The Economist’s cover this week, which cried, “A moral and political disgrace” under a photo of an overcrowded lifeboat surrounded by floating heads.
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However, Europe’s African policy is as misguided as the sea is deep, and will remain so as long as it treats its southern malaise like a heart patient determined to avoid surgery by taking a bottle of aspirin.
Europe’s response to the immigration onslaught has been far flung, ranging from aircraft seeking ramshackle boats opposite Algeria, through redoubled coast guard patrols off Sicily, to a newly sprung fence between Turkey and Greece. It has all been of little avail.
The 800 who drowned this month between Libya and Sicily are about half those who have perished so far this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, more than 1,750 dead in all; which is 30 times the number of such deaths during the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s response to this drama – “The Mediterranean is fast becoming a sea of misery for thousands of immigrants” – was typically diagnostic. Italy’s Renzi, by contrast, did prescribe some medicine, but it was mostly symptomatic treatment.
The European Union’s budget for naval and aerial patrols, currently €40 million, must be increased, he asserted; human trafficking must be fought, he added, and “new tools” must be devised in order to handle the asylum-seekers with which Europe is becoming increasingly awash.
These, then, are the elements of an attitude that takes the migratory avalanche as a given, and rather than prevent it focuses on deflecting it.
Such was the output of last week’s emergency summit of EU leaders, who doubled to $50m. their special funding for reception centers in the EU’s “frontlines states” and decided to send more vessels into the Mediterranean, so that more migrants can be fished from the sea that once bridged, and now shames, the lands to its north and south.
Symptomatic is also the broad agreement that Libya deserves special attention, because it is the country through which 90 percent of the illegal immigrants who reach Italy leave Africa. “The Islamic State operates there,” noted Renzi in an opinion article in The New York Times, in an understated expression of widespread fear following ISIS’s warning in February to flood Europe, via Libya, with half-a-million migrants.
Having arrived where it has, Europe’s defensive and humanitarian initiatives are of course imperative. However, at its root the showdown in the Mediterranean is part of colonization’s painful history, and such, for better or worse, will also be its aftermath.
Afro-European relations were fraught with trauma since antiquity.
What began with Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and with Rome’s leveling of Carthage was later followed by an African-Arab army’s conquest of Spain and by Spain’s subsequent expulsion of its largely African Muslims, shortly before Europeans began seizing, chaining, and shipping Africans as slaves in crowded boats to the New World.
While the relationship between these and what is happening now is debatable, there should be no arguing it is related to recent centuries’ colonialism.
What began with colonization and was followed by decolonization is now undergoing counter-colonization, and should ultimately be followed by post-colonization.
Colonization, the unsolicited arrival of troops, capital and settlers, accelerated in Africa after the French construction of the Suez Canal. By World War I practically the entire continent had been grabbed by European powers and carved up between them, mostly by Britain and France, but also by Belgium, Italy, Portugal and even distant Germany.
It was an arrangement that could only last that long, as George Orwell noticed in 1939 while watching African troops march through the streets of Marrakech to the staccato of French officers’ commands.
“How much longer,” he asked, “can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?” Just over a decade, was the answer, as by the early ’50s Africans started shooting, and what began in Kenya and culminated in Algeria soon triggered the grand European retreat that abandoned Africa and its several-dozen newly carved states to their devices.
However, what had been driven by what’s known as Gold, God and Glory, the combination of greed, proselytizing and nationalism was soon followed by what should be called counter-colonialism. Now Africans began sailing to Europe.
What began with seasonal laborers quickly became immigrants, first individuals then families, and what initially seemed socially digestible soon proved socially undigested, and what began with North African Arabs was soon followed by sub-Saharan blacks, all of which now makes a critical mass of Europeans feel the way Africans felt only yesterday: colonized.
Following those Orwellian guns’ change of direction, now the search for gold also reversed course, as the Europeans who once descended on Africa’s riches gave way to Africans who flocked to Europe’s workshops, while the Christian missionaries who once blanketed Africa gave way to cohorts of Muslim worshipers bowing toward Mecca in the streets of France, Belgium, Sweden and Spain.
Set against this backdrop, Europeans are prone to turn to moralizing extremes, in tune with the political neurosis that once made papists and anti-papist slaughter each other; then made Europe split itself between fascists and communists, and now makes it approach the Middle East conflict with a uniquely European mixture of arrogance and guilt.
Chances are therefore high that, as the Mediterranean tempest intensifies, Europe will split between those blaming African failures on European crimes and those who justify African woes as punishment for Europe’s eviction.
Both attitudes are of course absurd, and neither is helpful. Africa deserved its freedom no less than Europe deserved its own.
At the same time, Europe can’t be blamed for what happened in Africa after its departure.
True, Europe bilked and bludgeoned Africa, but that was a long time ago. No foreigner is to blame for recent decades of civil war, social decay and political disintegration from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan through Congo and the Ivory Coast to Algeria and Libya. That mess is African.
However, it is a mess that is spilling into Europe, making too many there feel as if Hannibal’s elephants were descending the Alps again.
The solution lies in Europe looking not only into the waters where Africans are drowning, but to the continent beyond them, and asking how it can be reinvented so its inhabitants will not want to leave it.
Europe can make this happen within a generation, if it encourages the emergence of three countries as Africa’s leading powers: Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria. None of these is a political utopia, but all three’s leaderships offer the combination of responsibility and authority which the vast triangle that sprawls between them lacks.
This post-colonial investment will have to be first and foremost in the three’s industries, so more Africans will have gainful jobs at home, and in the three’s secret services, so they can fight jointly the Islamist enemy they and Europe already share. With Egypt as linchpin, this is the key to the deliverance of Libya and Somalia from their dubious status as failed states.
The gradual emergence of stable and responsible governments, orbiting three regional powers, will in due course reduce emigration.
Yet before this can happen in Africa, Europe must shed its discourses of arrogance and guilt. Chances of such sobriety taking over Europe’s attitude to Africa are at least as good as chances sobriety will take over its attitude to the Middle East.