What is a ‘European’?
What is a ‘European’?
Criminalizing humanitarian assistance threatens the post-1945 European identity
This past year, the European Union has seen an emergence of new challenges which have brought its identity to question.
How do you define what it means to be a European? This question is subjective and given the large diversity of cultures between 28 different countries, there is no single definition. As a Canadian, I am not one to determine which definitions are most fitting, but from my outside perspective, I believe that despite the range of opinions on what a European is, majority, if not all, of Europeans can agree on one thing: they are united in their diversity. The next question is: what are they united for? Well, I believe that the purpose of this unification is something that can be found in the EU’s many treaties and documents. But in the midst of the migration crisis, I find it most necessary to refer to the Treaty of Lisbon as the foundation of Europe’s solidarity. Article 1A states that “the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” Enshrined in a document such as the Treaty of Lisbon, these principles are not up for debate for many European citizens.
From July 12th to July 15th, the first “Le festival des Passeurs d’humanité,” or “Festival of Humanitarian smugglers,” took place at the Roya Valley, located on the Franco-Italian border. The festival was a symbol of European citizens’ welcoming sentiment to migrants, as well as a call for new migration policies. The same weekend, European citizens sought another form of condemnation of Europe’s migration policies through a demonstration which took place in Ventimiglia, Italy. Ventimiglia also stands as the commencing point of the 1,400 km Solidarity March for Migrants, occurring between April and July 2018, and continuing to Calais and London.
These movements are a response to the EU’s handling of the ongoing migration crisis and the controversial laws which have been put in place to punish EU citizens who assisted migrants in need. In 2002, a European directive was adopted regarding the unauthorized entry, transit, and residence of migrants and imposes sanctions against individuals who assisted in these activities for “financial gain,” excluding those who are assisting for humanitarian purposes. The directive was intended to target human smuggling networks and EU member-states were given the responsibility of implementing it into national law. However, numerous countries have implemented it without the humanitarian exception.
As seen with any law that leaves ambiguity in its definition, the solidarity offense can be misused against legitimate humanitarian assistance efforts. In the case that an individual is charged under the law, the subject can receive a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a €30,000 fine. This poses a serious threat to innocent humanitarian workers and European Parliament members have called upon the European Commission to define the law more clearly. However, insufficient dialogue has been developed over the implications for misapplication.
As a result, numerous cases have been initiated across the continent against European citizens, and pressure has been placed to dissuade others from joining in. For example, Hungary’s parliament approved a package of bills that criminalizes helping illegal immigrants, terming it the “STOP Soros” law, after George Soros, a Hungarian-born US billionaire who bid $500 million towards the needs of migrants, refugees, and host communities throughout the world, but most notably, Europe. While the Hungarian government claims that the new legislation asserts the will of the Hungarian population, human rights groups within the country, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, have condemned the law and warned that “instead of giving protection against persecution, the Hungarian government has decided to join the ranks of the persecutors.” As a result, the European Commission sent a letter to the Hungarian government regarding its breach of the EU’s charter of fundamental rights—a first step in a legal process that could remove Hungary from the European Court of Justice.
However, Hungary is not the only EU member-state attempting to exercise the controversial law against humanitarian work—in the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, Mytilini, two humanitarian workers from the Danish NGO Tea Humanity and three humanitarian workers from the Spanish NGO PROEM-AID, who assisted incoming migrant ships in Greece, were on trial under charges of attempting to smuggle asylum-seekers on the island. Unsurprisingly, the defendants were acquitted of charges, but the case highlights the grey area of the 2002 directive. Meanwhile in Italy, the offense is focused on the activities of NGO-chartered boats providing assistance to migrants attempting to cross the sea. On March 17th, 2018, ships charted by the Spanish NGO ProActiva were seized in Italy after it had refused to return 216 rescued migrants to the Libyan coast guard. While the ship has been released and conspiracy charges have been dropped, charges for assisting in illegal immigration are still pending.
The migration crisis has largely painted a picture of member-states at odds with one another in establishing a collective response, however, a reality that is given less attention is the dispute between the European Union and European citizens. While the EU is failing to provide legitimate humanitarian assistance to the many migrants embarking on dangerous journeys to Europe, EU citizens have sought to take matters into their own hands—finding solidarity across the continent. One example is “We are Welcoming Europe,” a coalition of over 170 civil society organizations in Europe who have claimed that “since our governments are struggling to handle migration, we—European citizens, students, volunteers, families, unions and communities of faith from all walks of life—have stepped in to help.” However, “our right to help is being criminalized as Europeans are being arrested, fined, and intimidated for simply offering humanitarian assistance to people fleeing persecution.”
The ‘solidarity offense’ pushes humanitarianism into the political world and impedes on important principles, such as neutrality, impartiality, and independence, which have stood as the basis of its functioning since the drafting of the Geneva Conventions. Humanitarian assistance should be given where it is needed, regardless of a victim’s nationality, race, religious belief, gender, or political opinion, and it should be inoculated from politics. Instead, as the director of the Institute for Race Relations, Liz Fekete, states in the organization’s report ‘Humanitarianism: the Unacceptable Face of Solidarity,’ “the imperatives of a deterrent asylum system mean that ‘border defense’, not the protection of life, remains the priority at Europe’s frontiers,” and “those who take refugees to a place of safety, or feed or clothe them, are deemed guilty of unpatriotic displays of unacceptable solidarity.”
The misuse of the 2002 Directive by some EU member-states fails to reflect the organization’s very own principles such as respect for human dignity, freedom, solidarity, and justice, set out in the Treaty of Lisbon. While the principles in article 1A refer to affairs within EU member-states and its citizens, article 10A of the Treaty of Lisbon states that, “the Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity.”
Thus, the European Union’s interests to create peace and prosperity, to respect human dignity, rights, and freedoms, and to stand in solidarity for these principles, were not intended to stop at its borders. Its experiences with war pushed it down the ambitious road of uniting citizens with those they once perceived as ‘enemies’ under a single European identity, in order to establish a shared peace. Under this new identity, the compassion to provide a helping hand to others, regardless of who they are or where they come from, has become enshrined in the European.
And these values have not been completely forgotten—Cédric Herrou, a farmer in France and hero to many humanitarians in Europe, was on trial and faced threats of imprisonment for helping close to 200 migrants enter France from Italy when the French government secured the border in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks. However, the nation’s highest constitutional tribunal found Herrou not guilty after referring to France’s motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” which arose during the French Revolution and was later enshrined in its constitution. While the law does not dismiss government efforts to fight illegal migration and smuggling, fraternity is a constitutional principle that Herrou exercised when providing assistance to migrants he believed needed it.
In the face of the migration crisis, some have separated from the memories and lessons of war and politicians have begun to play on this for popular support, thus abandoning the post-war European identity. However, as the “We are Welcoming Europe” movement states, “this is not the Europe we want. Together we can reclaim those acts for what they are: reflecting our European and human values of community, compassion and kindness.” Although politicians are failing to uphold Europe’s values, citizens, such as Cédric Herrou, are stepping in to show the world that the post-1945 European identity, one which puts respect for basic human rights, freedoms, and dignity at the forefront, will always remain.