Why Meloni’s naval blockade isn’t going to happen

Calls for a naval blockade are nothing more than rhetoric, but Italy is taking some steps to improve the immigration crisis

editor: REMIX NEWS
author: John Cody
Migrants wait to be transferred from Lampedusa Island, Italy, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Valeria Ferraro)

Conservatives have been rallying around the idea of a naval blockade to defend Europe’s borders for years, but while the idea sounds great to many, few promoting such a blockade have ever described how it would look like in practice. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni gained traction for promoting the idea during her campaign for prime minister, and her supporters cheered her right into office.

A naval blockade, after all, sounds like a muscular response to a crisis that has long plagued Europe. France, Italy, and Germany do, after all, would have a formidable navy if they were to combine their forces. These same ships could be repurposed to protect Europe’s people from a deluge of migrants from the south.

However, Meloni herself was always short on details, simply calling for a “naval blockade,” and this may have been by design.

The reality is that based on current laws, the EU would not be able to enforce a naval blockade, nor does it want to. Maritime law dictates that the EU or Italy cannot enter within 12 miles of the coast of countries where migrants are disembarking, such as Tunisia or Libya.

Then, once migrants hit the open sea, EU authorities are not permitted to stop any ship as long as it is seaworthy, according to international law.

Finally, neither Italy nor any other country can permanently prevent migrants from docking in their ports, although they can cite safety reasons to temporarily deny a ship. Just ask Matteo Salvini. He has been dragged through the Italian court system with charges of “kidnapping” and could theoretically still face prison time for his efforts to prevent NGO migrant boats from docking in Italian ports.

Even if Italy were to prevent the rescue missions by NGO boats from operating entirely, it would have little effect on migration flows, as approximately 90 percent of all migrants land on Italian shores with their own intact boats. In short, most are making it across without any significant problem. The shipwrecks may make the news, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the overall numbers arriving in Italy.

A real naval blockade, as many typically imagine it, implies force. Will EU ships begin firing on migrants as they make their way to Europe? Will they ram migrant boats or use other aggressive tactics to discourage migrants? None of this is going to happen. Even if Italy was seeing a million migrants a year, instead of the already crisis-level 130,000 migrants who landed this year, Europe in its current configuration will do nothing openly that involves any kind of force.

That is not to say that, to some extent, aggressive tactics have not already been used. Greek authorities have been accused of using “pushbacks” against migrants at sea and land, and in many cases, these pushbacks have forced migrants to turn away. However, even with Greece’s aggressive tactics, which Human Rights Watch claims halted tens of thousands of migrants from entering Greek territory, the country has come under intense scrutiny and still faces massive problems with most migrants making it through.

There is also a limit to what Greek authorities are willing to do to stop the boats. Any aggressive actions taken remain under-the-radar tactics that an array of NGOs are calling illegal. In due time, Greek conservatives, if they lose power, could face investigations similar to what Salvini underwent.

At the same time, the truth is, the EU offloads the dirty work of keeping a tsunami of migrants from reaching the EU to third countries that use “pushbacks” with general impunity for a price — usually in the form of pay-offs called “economic aid” from the EU. Tunisia, Turkey, and other North African and Middle Eastern countries police their coasts with force, sometimes deadly force, and push migrants back to shore and deal with people smugglers, but it has cost the EU billions. When more handouts are needed or these countries desire to increase the political pressure on Europe for some geopolitical reason, enforcement is once again put on hold until more money flows or the EU throws some more sweeteners in, such as more visas, which in turn, means more immigration.

It would be more honest and transparent if the EU used its own forces for these border enforcement tasks, but the left-liberal ruling bloc would not maintain its cultural hegemony and instead prattles on about democracy, human rights, and “values” while Brussels pays these “authoritarian” governments on the other side of the Mediterranean to do the job for them.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who met with Meloni on the island of Lampedusa on Sunday last week, said that “irregular migration is a European challenge and it needs a European answer.” Meloni, after seeing what happened to Salvini when he attempted a uniquely Italian solution to the crisis, is also likely hoping that Europe steps in so she does not have to put her neck on the line. However, von der Leyen has and never will voice support for a naval blockade, instead proposing a maritime mission. In effect, any European naval ships on such a mission would do nothing more than escort migrants to ports in Italy.

As for von der Leyen’s vague 10-point plan to prevent immigration, which she also announced on Lampedusa, it includes aid to Tunisia, including investments in surveillance and maritime support. However, Salvini has pointed out a number of flaws in this approach, noting that these countries have been highly effective at taking money from the EU, but far less so at actually policing their borders — even if they do at times employ their own pushback methods.

Mostly, what von der Leyen plans to do, is relocate Italy’s migrants to countries like Poland and Hungary, which she alluded to when she said migrant relocation is becoming necessary in the face of the crisis. Her visit to Lampedusa was ultimately nothing more than a photo op and a bone she threw to Meloni, who has mostly played ball with the EU.

Is there any hope?

The EU is paralyzed because many of the laws in place were designed by very clever people, some of them decades ago, to tie its hands in the face of a migration crisis. Powerful NGOs, lawyers, judges, left-wing thinkers, and journalists built up a self-perpetuating system of endless migration that is designed to ebb and flow, but always march on indefinitely.

It will take a major change of power both in the EU and within some of the most powerful nations — namely Germany and France — to ever result in any real substantive change in immigration policy and not just lip service to trick the masses again and again.

Meloni could, in theory, take far more action against the immigration crisis, as France’s Marine Le Pen has called for — going so far as to characterize Meloni’s response as “cowardice” — but Meloni appears to only be capable of resorting to pleas to Brussels mixed in with tough talk to placate her base.

However, there are some moves being made that could somewhat help alleviate the crisis. Italy has, in response to the huge numbers arriving on Lampedusa, boosted its ability to detain migrants from the current three months to 18 months, the EU maximum. It will also build additional migrant centers to house these migrants. This could actually be effective on some level, forcing migrants who arrive into a highly unpalatable and lengthy detainment.

Italy has often failed to detain these migrants in the past, even for mere weeks, with many of them breaking out of these centers and heading to wealthier northern European countries, sometimes hundreds at a time. Italy may need to take a page out of the playbook of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, who built the largest prison in Central America to house 40,000 gang members. Such detention centers would actually need to be not only unpleasant spaces, but also highly secure to ensure breakouts are not feasible — another unwelcome cost to the Italian taxpayer, but perhaps a worthwhile investment for a crisis that is leading to thousands of drowning deaths on the open sea and the demographic transformation of Europe.

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