The Brexit and Trump vote demonstrates a drastic incongruity with Marx’s prediction of a “proletariat revolution” that would “destroy all previous insecurities for, and insurance of, individual property”.However, he stands corrected in the notion that the bourgeoisie “creates a world in its own image”through the inevitable expansion of capitalism globally. This is essentially the argument of this paper.Firstly, this paper discusses the points in which Marx is proven right – creation and expansion of a world market and periodical commercial crises that “threaten the existence of bourgeois property [and society]”– which this paper argues as factors that provide some explanation for the Brexit and Trump vote. Secondly, it concentrates on the conceptof “populist nationalism” that Marx had failed to acknowledge in his conception of a proletariat revolution. Finally, this paper concludes by shedding light on Marx’s concept of “false consciousness” based on the model of “social totality” to reconcile Marx’s failure.
Trump my (B)Exit
Creation and expansion of a world market
Marx argues that capitalism is cosmopolitan in nature due to its constant need of an expanding market for its products. The bourgeoisie, who are the rulers of a capitalist society, achieve this market expansion by rapidly improving all instruments of production and facilitating means of communication that eventually force nations and populations to “adopt bourgeois mode of production”. This has been the exact trajectory of modern capitalist society with rapid expansion of bourgeois ideology through establishments such as the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that promote neoliberal policies, such as market deregulation, exchange rate management and free trade, making what Marx calls “nations of peasants”, i.e. developing nations dependent on “nations of bourgeois”,i.e. developed nations.
This cosmopolitan nature of capitalism that allows cross border economic activity between nations in distinct stages of development brings about “economic insecurity” amongst the working class, i.e. the proletariat, who do not own the means of production as the bourgeois do, are regarded as a commodity and are therefore exposed to market competition and fluctuation. Brexit and Trump vote can be understood to an extent through this framework of economic insecurity faced by the proletariat in both the UK and the US due to expansion of a world market. Brexit voters were those “without jobs or retired”. A report by NatCen(2016) shows that 59% of Leave voters belonged to the working class, i.e. the proletariat, and 84% of those who voted to Leave believe that the economy will be better off after Brexit. Similarly, Trump voters were America’s “industrial working class” which included low-waged unskilled workers, poorer white populations, the long-term unemployed and households dependent on shrinking social benefits. Both set of voters were “economic losers” of the world market and their votes gave them “political victories over the economic winners for the first time since the WWII”.
Periodical commercial crises that threaten bourgeois society
The capitalist system is periodically hit by commercial crises that result in an “epidemic of overproduction” which threatens the existence of bourgeois society. The 2008 financial crisis is a recent example of a commercial crisis faced by capitalist society that threatened its existence. Bourgeois institutions such as large multinational banks produced debt that threatened bourgeois property and society as well as the proletariat. While proletariat jobs were lost, and their communities drowned in debt created by these bourgeois institutions, the institutions themselves were rewarded for their greed and failure by the bourgeois state through expensive bail outs, the cost of which was incurred by proletariat taxpayers in the UK and the US. British banks received a staggering 850 billion pounds from the government with the eventual cost to taxpayers not yet known.The US government on the other hand committed 16.8 trillion dollars towards the bailout with 4.6 trillion already paid out.
Furthermore, Marx argues that the bourgeoisie overcome these periodical crises by “the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones”.The fact that the bourgeois mode of production continues to conquest new markets and exploit old ones regardless of the 2008 financial crisis, that indebted the proletariat drastically and cushioned the failure of the bourgeoisie, proves Marx right. Brexit and Trump can be understood as the collective frustration of an economically dispossessed proletariat of both nations who have put their foot down as a class against “free-market fundamentalism” promoted by the bourgeoisie. Thus, there appears a “national struggle [in the US and the UK] between classes” and since “every class struggle is a political struggle” the phenomena of Brexit and Trump has emerged.
The above analysis of Marx’s arguments regarding creation and expansion of a world market and periodical economic crises demonstrate that these were factors that played a key role in the Brexit and Trump vote. An expanding world market spread the bourgeois ideology worldwide and created a capitalist society which produced economic losers (Brexit and Trump voters) that were exploited by the economic winners (the professional elite of the UK and the US). In terms of economic crises, Marx was proven right in predicting that they would occur, i.e. the 2008 financial crisis, as well as be overcome through further exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie and its institution, i.e. the bailout and its cost that was incurred by the proletariat.
While these factors explain why the Brexit and Trump vote occurred, they do not fully encapsulate the nuances in both phenomena. Although it seems that the status quo of capitalist society has been shaken due to the Brexit and Trump vote, it is nowhere close to the proletariat revolution that Marx had predicted.
Nationalism – Pop my Rock and Rock my Pop
The “revolutionary class”, which is the proletariat, was to “alter the system of class rule”. However, what has occurred due to both phenomena is a political revolution which only changed the form of governmentwhile keeping the bourgeois society intact. This is because Marx failed to acknowledge the crucial factor and powerful rhetoric of populist nationalism.
Critics of Marx argue that he underestimated the bourgeois state which he believed would “wither away in its internal dimension, i.e. vis-à-vis society”. An example of this underestimation of the state is nationalism – an ideology that has “persistently proved itself superior to class loyalties as a means of mobilising mass support, amongst oppressed and oppressor alike”. Nationalism played a pivotal role in the vote for Brexit and Trump – with Leave voters rejecting the branding of “cosmopolitan, creative and united Britain as a part of a happy vision of globalization” in favour of “cultural cohesion” and “old fashioned notion of sovereignty” and Trump supporters favouring national sovereignty and tradition over cosmopolitanism and modernisation. The similarities between reasons supported by both set of voters is uncanny and distinctly demonstrates how nationalism is an extremely powerful ideology that can override class allegiances and sway the proletariat, who are the losers of an expanding world market, to make emotive decisions based on national solidarity that achieve little in dismantling the bourgeois state and society.
In the luminary work ‘Future of Europe’, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic recognises that: “The over-financialization and hyper-deregulations of the global(-ized) markets has brought the low-waged Chinese (peasant converted into a) worker into the spotlight of industrialized nations. … That’s how the world’s last cosmopolitan – Europe departed from the world of work, and that’s why the Continent today cannot orient itself(both needed to identify a challenge, as well as to calibrate and jointly redefine the EU path).To orient, one need to center itself: Without left and right, there is no center, right?!”
Another dimension to the ideology of nationalism that is pertinent to the Brexit and Trump vote is the concept of populism. Populism is defined as a “political movement that emphasizes the interests, cultural traits, and spontaneous feelings of the common people, as opposed to those of a privileged elite”.Populist movements inherently carry an “anti-elitist” tone as they pit common people against the privileged elite andare often led by “strong and charismatic leaders”.Furthermore, populists promote their agenda as the “will of the majority”, i.e. democracy, and it is so in a “majoritarian sense” as although they justify their agenda as the “embodiment of the people”, they exclude the disadvantaged minority, i.e. racial and economical, along with the privileged. Thus, populist movements do not necessarily align along economic terms but tend to be “antagonistic to cultural, linguistic, religious and racial minorities”. In sum, the ‘common people’ for populists are homogenous in cultural and economic terms and therefore populist movements include as much as they exclude.
Populist nationalism, a factor that has emerged within the Brexit and Trump phenomena, then is a populist movement based on sentiments of the people who subscribe to the ideology of British or American nationalism, while vehemently excluding the privileged minority who have benefitted from an expanding world market as well as the disadvantaged minority such as immigrants and other racial minorities. Furthermore, anti-elite sentiments can be seen in both the Brexit and Trump vote. The Leave campaigners were mobilised largely against the political and economic elites (privileged elite) who were seemingly uncaring about those that had been “bypassed by globalization” and Trump similarly aggravated working-class America against the “out-of-touch elite”, of which he is very much a part of.
Moreover, exclusion of immigrants (the disadvantaged minority) and extreme xenophobia was largely seen in these populist movements that brought about Brexit and Trump. Brexit vote was a vote rejecting foreignerswhich included economic migrants as well as refugees. Trump’s entire campaign was xenophobic in predating people of colour, people from Muslim and Hispanic backgrounds who were American citizens and refugees. Lastly, while the Leave campaign did not have a charismatic leader behind which the movement grew, it was already brewing on Euroscepticism advanced by the UK Independence Partythat led to the referendum and working-class America had Trump who championed racist rhetoric as means to his political end.
Thus, nationalism and populism played a massive role in the vote for Brexit and Trump. Nationalism essentially flourished because working class Britain and America felt threatened by international forces (world market) and populism thrived because the same people felt betrayed by political and economic elites. Rather than a proletariat revolution that would destroy bourgeois property and society, the vote for Brexit and Trump was a political revolution carried out by the proletariat of both nations that changed the form of government while failing to dismantle the system of class rule due to a surge in populist nationalism.
Cyclical or Cynical ?
The failure of a proletariat revolution can be accounted to the state of false consciousness which disables the proletariat from seeing the “deep structures of exploitation”. Such a state exists because the base of the social totality model, where relations of production reside, express the political and ideological relations in the superstructure, leading to a social totality that is run by the capitalist ideology of the bourgeoisie.Although the Brexit and Trump vote was a result of the proletariat acknowledging its exploitation by the bourgeois society, it was not because they recognised the real exploitation of their means of production but because they recognised with the strong bourgeois ideology of populist nationalism under a state of false consciousness.
Hence, the Brexit and Trump vote did little to change the status quo – governments were changed but bourgeois society survived. Thus, Marx was proven right in conceptualising an expanding world market and periodical economic crises, two factors which explain the Brexit and Trump vote to a certain extent, however, proven wrong in undermining the power of bourgeois ideologies, such as the one of nationalist populism, which would hamper the occurrence of a proletariat revolution due to the proletariat beingin a state of false consciousness.
EU-Japan Summit: A landmark moment for trade and cooperation
The 25th EU-Japan Summit took place on 17 July in Tokyo. At the summit, leaders signed two landmark agreements, the Strategic Partnership Agreement and the Economic Partnership Agreement, which will significantly boost bilateral relations.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, represented the European Union at the Summit. Japan was represented by its Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. The European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen also participated. EU Leaders offered their condolences to the people of Japan following the floods and landslides in Western Japan, and offered their support to Prime Minister to help in any way.
“Today is a historic moment in our enduring partnership”, said President Jean-Claude Juncker. “Today’s signature of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement is a landmark moment for global trade, and I am also delighted that we have signed the first ever Strategic Partnership Agreement, which takes our cooperation to the next level. The impact of the Economic Partnership Agreement goes far beyond our shores. Together, we are making a statement about the future of free and fair trade. We are showing that we are stronger and better off when we work together and we are leading by example, showing that trade is about more than tariffs and barriers. It is about values, principles and finding win-win solutions for all. As far as we are concerned, there is no protection in protectionism – and there cannot be unity where there is unilateralism.”
For open, fair and win-win trade
The Economic Partnership Agreement between the EU and Japan is the biggest ever negotiated by the European Union. It creates an open trade zone covering over 600 million people and nearly a third of global GDP. It will remove the vast majority of the €1 billion of duties paid annually by EU companies exporting to Japan, and has led to the removal of a number of long-standing regulatory barriers, for example on cars. It will also open up the Japanese market of 127 million consumers to key EU agricultural exports and will increase EU export opportunities in a range of other sectors. The Agreement follows the highest standards of labour, environmental and consumer protection and has a dedicated chapter on sustainable development. It is the first trade agreement negotiated by the European Union to include a specific commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström said: “We are sending a strong signal to the world that two of its biggest economies still believe in open trade, opposing both unilateralism and protectionism. The economic benefits of this agreement are clear. By removing billions of euros of duties, simplifying customs procedures and tackling behind-the-border barriers to trade, it will offer opportunities for companies on both sides to boost their exports and expand their business.”
Concerning data protection, the EU and Japan concluded the negotiations on reciprocal adequacy on 17 July, which will complement the Economic Partnership Agreement. They agreed to recognise each other’s data protection systems as ‘equivalent’, which will allow data to flow safely between the EU and Japan, creating the world’s largest area of safe data flows.
Věra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality said: “Japan and EU are already strategic partners. Data is the fuel of global economy and this agreement will allow for data to travel safely between us to the benefit of both our citizens and our economies. At the same time we reaffirm our commitment to shared values concerning the protection of personal data. This is why I am fully confident that by working together, we can shape the global standards for data protection and show common leadership in this important area.”
A Strategic Partnership Agreement fit for truly Strategic Partners
The European Union and Japan are like-minded partners, working together both bilaterally as well as in multilateral fora, such as the United Nations and the G7. The Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed today by President Juncker, President Tusk and Prime Minister Abe, will deepen and strengthen EU-Japan relations by providing an overarching and binding framework for enhanced cooperation.
“In today’s world, no country can think of tackling the global challenges that we are faced with on its own”, said the High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini ahead of the Summit. “Japan is a country that we already work so closely with, on many files, from peace-building to denuclearisation, from counter-terrorism to effective multilateralism. The Strategic Partnership Agreement will allow us to strengthen this cooperation across a wide range of sectors, but also open up the possibility for cooperation in new areas, from science, technology and innovation, environment and energy, to climate change and security.”
At the Summit, the Leaders addressed regional and foreign policy issues including the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, the commitment to preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal, among others. As the Strategic Partnership Agreement foresees, Leaders also discussed the shared commitment to strengthen cooperation on global issues and confirmed the EU and Japan’s joint vision and support to the rules-based international order with multilateralism, democracy, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, open markets and a global trading system with the World Trade Organisation at its core.
The Leaders also discussed other bilateral issues, including possibilities to strengthen the EU-Japan security partnership, strengthened cooperation in the fields of development policy and education, culture and sports.
EU-China Summit: Deepening the strategic global partnership
The 20th Summit between the European Union and the People’s Republic of China held today in Beijing has underlined that this partnership has reached a new level of importance for our own citizens, for our respective neighbouring regions and for the international community more broadly.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk represented the European Union at the Summit. The People’s Republic of China was represented by Premier Li Keqiang. European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, and Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc also attended the Summit. President Tusk and President Juncker also met with the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.
“I have always been a strong believer in the potential of the EU-China partnership. And in today’s world that partnership is more important than ever before. Our cooperation simply makes sense”, said the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. “Europe is China’s largest trading partner and China is our second largest. The trade in goods between us is worth over €1.5 billion every single day. But we also know that we can do so much more. This is why it is so important that today we have made progress on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment through a first exchange of offers on market access, and towards an agreement on Geographical Indications. That shows that we want to create more opportunities for people in China and in Europe.”
The Joint Summit Statement agreed by the European Union and China illustrates the breadth and depth of the EU-China relationship and the positive impact that such a partnership can have, in particular when it comes to addressing global and regional challenges such as climate change, common security threats, the promotion of multilateralism, and the promotion of open and fair trade. The Summit follows the High-level Strategic Dialogue, co-chaired by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini and Chinese State Counsellor, Wang Yi, in Brussels on 1 June, and the High-level Economic and Trade Dialogue, co-chaired by Vice-President Katainen and Chinese Vice-Premier, Liu He, in Beijing on 25 June.
This 20th Summit demonstrates the many ways in which the European Union and China are concretely strengthening what is already a comprehensive relationship. In addition to the Joint Statement, a number of other concrete deliverables were agreed, including:
- a Leaders’ Statement on Climate Change and Clean Energy;
- an exchange of offers on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment;
- a Partnership Agreement on Oceans;
- a Memorandum of Understanding on Circular Economy Cooperation;
- a Memorandum of Understanding to Enhance Cooperation on Emissions Trading;
- agreement to conclude before the end of October, if possible, the negotiations on an Agreement on Geographical Indications;
- an Action Plan concerning China-EU Customs Cooperation on Intellectual Property Rights (2018-2020);
- a Memorandum of Understanding between the European Investment Fund and the Silk Road Forumconfirming the first co-investment carried out under the recently established China-EU Co-Investment Fund;
- a Strategic Administrative Cooperation Arrangement and an Action Plan (2018-2020) between the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the General Administration of China Customs
Working together for a more sustainable planet
In the Leaders’ statement on climate change and clean energy, the European Union and China have committed to step up their cooperation towards low greenhouse gas emission economies and the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. In doing so, the EU and China will intensify their political, technical, economic and scientific cooperation on climate change and clean energy.
Welcoming this commitment, President Juncker said: “We have underlined our joint, strong determination to fight climate change and demonstrate global leadership. It shows our commitment to multilateralism and recognises that climate change is a global challenge affecting all countries on earth. There is no time for us to sit back and watch passively. Now is the time for decisive action.”
Vice-President Katainen and the Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, He Lifeng,also signed the Memorandum of Understanding to Enhance Cooperation on Emissions Trading, which acknowledges the significant potential of emissions trading to contribute to a low carbon economy and further enhances the cooperation of the two largest emission trading systems of the world.
Building on the success of the 2017 EU-China Blue Year, the EU and China have also signed a Partnership Agreement on Oceans. Two of the world’s largest ocean economies will work together to improve the international governance of the oceans, including by combating illegal fishing and exploring potential business and research opportunities, based on clean technologies, in the maritime economy. The partnership contains clear commitments to protect the marine environment against pollution, including plastic litter; tackle climate change in accordance with the Paris Agreement and implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular Goal 14. The signature of this ocean partnership is the first of its kind and opens the door for future partnerships between the EU and other key ocean players.
Vice-President Katainen and Minister of Ecology and Environment, Li Ganjie, also signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Circular Economy Cooperation that will provide a framework for cooperation, including a high-level policy dialogue, to support the transition to a circular economy. Cooperation will cover strategies, legislation, policies and research in areas of mutual interest. It will address management systems and policy tools such as eco-design, eco-labelling, extended producer responsibility and green supply chains as well as financing of the circular economy. Both sides will exchange best practice in key fields such as industrial parks, chemicals, plastics and waste.
In the context of the EU’s International Urban Cooperation programme, in the margins of the Summit, Commissioner Creţu witnessed the signature of a joint declaration between Chinese and European cities: Kunming and Granada (ES); Haikou and Nice (FR); Yantai and Rome (IT); Liuzhou and Barnsley (UK) and Weinan and Reggio Emilia (IT). These partnerships will facilitate exchanges to examine and develop local action plans reflecting the EU’s integrated approach to sustainable urban development while addressing social, economic, demographic and environmental challenges.
Putting the international rules-based system at the centre of open and fair trade
“I am more convinced than ever that, in the era of globalisation and of interdependence, multilateralism must be at the heart of what we do. We expect all our partners to respect international rules and commitments that they have taken, notably within the framework of the World Trade Organisation”, said President Jean-Claude Juncker in his keynote speech at the EU-China Business Roundtable in Beijing, which provided an opportunity for EU and Chinese leaders to exchange views with representatives of the business community. “At the same time, it is true that the existing WTO rules do not allow unfair practices to be dealt with in the most effective way, but instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we must all preserve the multilateral system and improve it from within.” President Juncker’s full speech is available online. Commissioner Malmström also intervened at the event.
At the Summit, the EU and China confirmed their firm support to the rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system with the WTO as its core and committed to complying with existing WTO rules. They also committed to co-operating on the reform of the WTO to help it meet new challenges, and established a joint working group on WTO reform, chaired at Vice-Ministerial level, to this end.
Good progress was made on the ongoing Investment Agreement negotiations, which is a top priority and a key project towards establishing and maintaining an open, predictable, fair and transparent business environment for European and Chinese investors. The EU and China exchanged market access offers, moving the negotiations into a new phase, in which work can be accelerated on the offers and other key aspects of the negotiations. The European Investment Fund (EIF), part of the European Investment Bank Group, and China’s Silk Road Fund (SRF) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the aim of confirming the first co-investment carried out under the recently established China-EU Co-Investment Fund (“CECIF”) that promotes investment cooperation between the European Union and China and the development of synergies between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Investment Plan for Europe.
Regarding steel, both sides agreed to strengthen their cooperation in the Global Forum on Steel Excess Capacity and committed, in accordance with the decisions of the 2016 Hangzhou and 2017 Hamburg Summits, as well as with the 2017 Ministerial decisions, to the goal of implementing the agreed political recommendations.
The EU and China also agreed to conclude the negotiations on an Agreement on cooperation on, and protection from imitation for distinctive food and drink products, so-called Geographical Indications before the end of October – if possible. An agreement in this area would result in a high level of protection of our respective Geographical Indications, which represent important traditions and rich resources for both the EU and China.
In the area of food safety, the EU and China agreed to promote the highest food safety standards, and are ready to take the regionalisation principle into account, and committed to expanding market access for food products.
The EU and China have also signed the Action Plan Concerning China-EU Customs Cooperation on Intellectual Property Rights (2018-2020), with the aim of strengthening customs enforcement to combat counterfeiting and piracy in the trade between the two. The Action Plan will also promote cooperation between customs and other law enforcement agencies and authorities in order to stop production and wind up distribution networks.
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the General Administration of China Customs signed a Strategic Administrative Cooperation Arrangement and an Action Plan (2018-2020) on strengthening the cooperation in combatting customs fraud in particular in the field of transhipment fraud, illicit traffic of waste and undervaluation fraud.
At the third meeting of the EU-China Connectivity Platform, held in the margins of the Summit and chaired for the EU by Commissioner Violeta Bulc, the two parties reaffirmed their commitment to transport connectivity on the basis of respective policy priorities, sustainability, market rules and international coordination.
The exchanges focused on:
- the policy cooperation based on the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) framework and the Belt and Road initiative, involving relevant third countries between EU and China;
- cooperation on Transport decarbonisation and digitalisation, including in international fora such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)
- cooperation on investment projects based on sustainability criteria, transparency and level-playing field to foster investment in transport between EU and China.
A people’s partnership
The European Union and China are putting their respective citizens at the heart of the strategic partnership. There were good discussions on foreign and security cooperation and the situation in their respective neighbourhoods. At the Summit, EU and Chinese Leaders discussed ways to support a peaceful solution on the Korean Peninsula; their commitment to the continued, full and effective implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal; joint, coordinated work on the peace process in Afghanistan; and the situation in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. They also discussed other foreign and security challenges, such as in the Middle East, Libya, and Africa, as well as their joint commitment to multilateralism and the rules-based international order with the United Nations at its core.
Many successful activities have already been held within the framework of the 2018 China-EU Tourism Year, designed to promote lesser-known destinations, improve travel and tourism experiences, and provide opportunities to increase economic cooperation. At the Summit, Leaders committed to further advancing relevant activities, facilitating tourism cooperation and contacts between people.
With the protection and improvement of human rights at the very core of the European Union and its global partnerships, Leaders also addressed issues relating to human rights, a week after the EU and China held their latest Human Rights Dialogue.
Both parties confirmed that they will press ahead with the parallel negotiations on the second phase of the EU-China Mobility and Migration Dialogue roadmap, namely on an agreement on visa facilitation and an agreement on cooperation in addressing irregular migration.
The EU and China also agreed to launch new dialogues covering drug-related issues and on humanitarian assistance.
Libya is in no state to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean
Italy’s new government—an unholy alliance of the populist M5S and far-right League parties—careened into office on an uncompromising anti-migrant platform, soliciting the warnings of politicians and financial institutions around the world. With its recent decision to hand naval control of a large swath of the Mediterranean—extending almost to Malta and Crete— to failed-state Libya, the coalition government may yet set a new low more rapidly than expected.
Italy’s hope is that the Libyan forces it has ceded responsibility to will prevent shipwrecked migrants from reaching European shores, instead returning them to the very country they are trying to flee. While this plan might sound attractive to a government which has lamented it can’t deport its own citizens from minority backgrounds, NGOs working in the area have stressed the grave threat the new policy poses to migrants. Those rescued now face a return to prolonged detention and harsh treatment in a country which has been desperately torn apart for seven years. From the spate of warring militias which control Tripoli to General Khalifa Haftar’s lengthy campaign against Islamist forces in the country’s east, Libya is plagued with conflicts which make it no safe haven for migrants.
In this context, Italy’s decision to hand over responsibility of such a large portion of the Mediterranean to Libya is likely not only against international law, but an affront to basic human rights. The Italian government is set to donate 12 boats to enhance the capabilities of the Libyan coast guard—such as it is— given its new responsibilities. Libya will need these twelve vessels and more before they can carry out even the most basic search and rescue operations. At present, the country only has three operational patrol boats; barely seaworthy, they are often forced to stay at port due to lack of fuel. “It’s very clear that the priority is not saving lives”, one spokesman from the German charity Sea Watch remarked about the sorry state of Libya’s fleet; “I have not seen a single life jacket.”
Unsurprisingly, Libya’s track record on saving migrants at sea is hardly exceptional. More than 100 migrants, including young children, recently drowned off Libyan shores after the coast guard picked up just 16 survivors when their overloaded vessel capsized. In a separate incident, a shipwreck east of Libya’s capital Tripoli saw 63 people go missing after their inflatable boat sank. The Libyan coast guard was unable to even locate their bodies.
The number of migrants dying during the dangerous crossing has significantly increased since the European Union began to back away from rescue missions and close crucial ports. At the same time human traffickers are exploiting the desperation of those attempting to flee violence on the African continent, the European bloc seems ever more reluctant to extend a well-trained, well-resourced helping hand.
That reluctance has had deadly consequences. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), one out of seven migrants attempting the journey across the Mediterranean died at sea last month, compared to last year’s average of one in 38 migrants.
Though it is becoming increasingly obvious the EU cannot accept further significant inflows of migrants without exacerbating tensions that risk breaking the bloc apart, plans to send migrants back to be detained in war-torn Libya under horrific conditions are simply inhumane.
If Italy is determined to turn over control of migrant rescue operations to the Libyan government, it first needs to make sure that that government is stable and just. So far, the West has done little to support Libya, privileging short-term solutions to the country’s deeply-rooted problems. Many Western countries have also stubbornly continued to push for the unelected, UN-backed-government in Tripoli, long after it has proven to be weak and ineffective. Upon the violent end of Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades of dictatorial rule, the US abdicated responsibility for “picking up the pieces” of Libya. At the same time, the UN worked to reconcile adversarial political blocs under the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). This top-down approach has proven profoundly flawed, not least because it has sidelined actors outside the UN government, such as General Haftar, who already commands significant respect and power in the country.
Thankfully, Western attempts to stabilize Libya are slowly becoming more effective. Major international powers now finally recognize that all principal Libyan stakeholders must necessarily be involved in crafting a sustainable solution. France in particular is taking the lead on pushing for a workable way out of the crisis. Paris believes Haftar, whose four-year-long military campaign has been successful at rooting out the Islamic State and its affiliates from Derna and other fundamentalist strongholds, must inherently be a part of that process. In an encouraging breakthrough, Haftar and the three other key Libyan leaders have met and even tentatively agreed to hold elections in December.
This new approach to diplomacy within Libya’s chaotic borders is promising, and may point to a more stable future in years to come. In the meantime, Libya cannot be trusted with patrolling a huge section of the Mediterranean until a steadfast Libyan government can prove its mettle in ensuring the rule of law domestically.
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