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Unnecessary provocations from both sides

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
July 1, 2019

The arrest of the "Sea-Watch 3" captain raises the question of who stands to benefit from such acts of protest. Ultimately, it may play into the hands of Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, writes Bernd Riegert.

Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, is escorted off the ship by police and taken away for questioning, in Lampedusa, Italy June 29, 2019.
'Sea-Watch 3' captain Carola Rackete faces legal proceedings in ItalyImage: Reuters/G. Mangiapane

In Germany, the skipper of the NGO-owned migrant rescue ship "Sea-Watch 3" is being hailed as a hero by politicians and celebrities alike. Surprisingly, this has included Germany's president, who is typically more likely to criticize domestic politics than international partners.

In Italy, though, Carola Rackete is mostly regarded as a criminal. So, which camp is right? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Read more:  Migrant rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3: What you need to know

Rackete's daredevil docking maneuver, in the course of which she inflicted damage to a police boat, must lead to consequences under criminal law. However, her desire to find a safe haven for her shipwrecked passengers cannot be denied either. Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, called Rackete's unauthorized entering of Lampedusa's port an "act of war," or piracy, claims that aren't compatible with maritime law. But if the broader goal of Sea-Watch, a Berlin-based private aid organization, was to discredit Italy's interior minister and his hardline anti-migration policy, it has failed for the time being.

Salvini rejoices

Salvini, a cunning populist, gleefully seizes on this provocation, grateful for another opportunity to take his message to Italy's voters, namely that he's completely on the right track when he refuses to take in shipwrecked people. In his twisted world view, Italy has to defend itself against an attack by a German vessel and so-called "do-gooders" from northern Europe.

Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert

Both the ship's captain and the NGO's officials should have known, facing an opponent such as Matteo Salvini, that they'd be unable to win this political showdown by staging a provocation. Indirectly, they are even helping the far-right politician to cement his tough, inhumane stance within the EU. Now, the only glimmer of hope is that Italy's judiciary will observe the principle of proportionality and will issue Rackete with a fine at most, rather than sending her to prison.

After all, it's not the first time that a ship owned by a private charity has been impounded. Another German ship, the "Lifeline", was confiscated by Maltese authorities in June 2018 and remains moored in the port of Valletta. It's not just Italy which has radically revised its stance regarding private migrant rescuers, who were initially hailed by the EU. The overall policy of the EU's member states is now to keep refugees inside Libya, or alternatively to try to have them returned to Libya by the country's coast guard. "Sophia", the EU's own rescue mission off the Libyan coast, has been cancelled — the focus is on deterrence.

Inept EU

Defying this European policy of containment are the various private vessels which are still rescuing migrants from inflatable dinghies and trying to take them to Europe. For years, attempts at establishing an EU-wide distribution system which applies in such cases have been torpedoed by the non-Mediterranean countries. In the past, distribution was only successful when one of a handful of countries spontaneously agreed to accept small groups of refugees from single vessels on humanitarian grounds. This impromptu bartering process between the EU's capitals cannot, of course, be a permanent fixture as it's completely incalculable.

Five EU countries had offered to take in those migrants who still remained on board "Sea-Watch 3", so Salvini could very easily have avoided this whole song and dance. However, being hailed as the defender of Italy's sovereignty is an integral part of his political strategy. Now that those people have disembarked on Lampedusa, Salvini wants to send them on to Germany, France, Finland, Portugal and Luxembourg without establishing their identities first, which flies in the face of European regulations. This approach practically guarantees further trouble, which Salvini could also exploit for his political ends.

Who will benefit?

There are two lessons to be drawn from the "Sea-Watch 3" affair.

Firstly, this kind of spectacular protest campaign achieves very little in the matter at hand — on the contrary, radical opponents of migration stand to benefit.

Also, the European Union has to agree on a unified system of distribution urgently in order to avoid such face-offs. But given the entrenched divisions within the EU on this topic at present, there is little hope that this will happen in the near future.

Not to mention, there's the more fundamental issue of refugees or migrants trying to leave Libya on human traffickers' boats. Their destiny remains largely in the dark, because the EU, having stopped its own rescue mission and amid fewer and fewer private missions like "Sea-Watch 3", no longer even knows how many people actually perish while trying to reach European shores. If you're wondering who recently issued this complaint, by the way, it was the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union