Spain is seeking to apply the lessons of its previous migration experience to the European response

The approach and decisions taken by the EU at Valetta are very much in line with the Spanish government views that are themselves based on Spain’s recent experiences of handling the influx of immigrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa during the last decade. Even if the scale of migration is now of a different order to that of Spain’s previous experience - at the height of the crisis in 2006, there were 39,000 landings in the Canary Islands - Spain developed a series of policies and instruments which were very successful and which the government has always proclaimed to its EU partners as “best practices” which the EU should imitate.

These instruments included making illegal entries more difficult through better patrolling at sea, higher fences and deploying land radars to detect approaching vessels, as well as working closely with transit countries to help them contain the influx and prevent immigrants from sailing from their coasts.

On the diplomatic front, Spain previously opened new diplomatic missions in origin countries in Western Africa, staffing them with both police officers and development workers in order to work with their governments and police forces to guarantee both their help in making exits more difficult and in accepting repatriation of immigrants illegally arriving in Spain.  Increasing development budgets was also a central component of this strategy.

However, this framing, which worked so well in Spain, is difficult to replicate in the case of the current crisis and which makes the Valetta Summit approach and outcomes amenable to criticism. First, because what the EU is facing now is not an immigration crisis, but an asylum crisis which is both quantitatively and qualitatively different and necessitates different legal and political instruments. Second, because in this case the EU cannot work directly with the countries of origin in most cases (Syria, Eritrea), but only with transit countries. Third, because in this case the strengthening of borders and the national level implies the effective suspension of the Schengen among EU members.

Yet despite all of these differences, the Spanish government is in support of the approach taken in Valetta.





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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.