BERLIN — Italy has closed its ports, letting the Aquarius, a ship with more than 600 migrants on board, drift in the Mediterranean. And right off, the roles have been assigned: The partly right-nationalist Italian government are the bad guys; the good guys are the ones invoking humanity: the German chancellor, the EU, the UN.

But whoever reduces what's going on to a parable of biblical simplicity is disguising — possibly deliberately — the complex reality. There's no good and evil in this story. Instead there's a migration policy that, for or at least a decade now, has been characterized by half measures and convenience.

What we're experiencing is not a new era of inhuman, nationalist migration policy, but the epilogue of years of Mediterranean tragedy.

For too long, Germany and Europe have been leaving Italy — the first port of call for African migrants — on its own. When Silvio Berlusconi criticized the Dublin system, which places the burden of migration on coastal states, he was ignored. When Matteo Renzi, who was for a short time Italy's hope, did the same but somewhat more diplomatically. He, too, was ignored.


The Aquarius ship in Cuxhaven on January 24, 2012 — Photo: Ra Boe

There was a point when Italy chose to put pressure on the EU by waving migrants through to northern Europe. There was another when the country opted instead for cooperation, registered the migrants that had reached its shores and hoped for something in return from the EU. But the response from Berlin and Brussels was always inadequate.

Last year, the Italian government pulled the emergency brake and negotiated a refugee deal with Libya, along the lines of the one the EU made with Turkey. Too late, as it turns out. The deal did indeed reduce the number of arriving migrants to a fraction of the previous level, but just as in Germany, the shockwaves of the carelessness of 2015 continue to be felt to this day. The years before the Libyan agreement also had a lasting impact in Italy and carried the anti-establishment parties to election victory.

For too long, Germany and Europe have been leaving Italy on its own.

And so now, the new government issues the well-known threat in a radical Trumpist manner: If the EU does not help us, we'll just send the migrants back.

Rome's crackdown can also be an opportunity. It could help the EU come up with a fair migration policy more quickly. This should consist of three elements. First, protection of the EU's external borders. Second, the deportation of migrants who don't have the right to stay. Third, a fair distribution across EU countries of recognized asylum seekers. This is the best response to the new Italian government: the rule of law and solidarity, instead of division between good and evil.

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