The grand bargain that European Union leaders will offer their African counterparts over migration can be summarised as follows. Take back your huddled masses – and send us instead your students, researchers and entrepreneurs. And if you ask why on earth you should agree, the answer is that we will give you lots more money - plus the chance to go shopping in European capitals.
This might be a crude precis of the 14-page “Action Plan” that EU and African leaders will consider in Malta on Wednesday, but it captures the air of desperation about the whole idea. As they grapple with the migration crisis, European governments have been driven to a point where they will consider almost any proposal, however divorced from reality.
There is, admittedly, a superficial logic behind the scheme that will be debated at the Malta summit. Given that thousands of Africans will try to reach Europe in any event, why not offer them a safe and legal means of entry? The best way to put the people smugglers out of business and stop the perilous voyages across the Mediterranean is to open up formal pathways to the EU.
Once that premise is accepted, then the plan acquires a logic of its own. If Europe’s doors are indeed to be opened to more migrants, why not accept those with skills and qualifications? The “Action Plan” duly promises to relax the entry and residence rules for African “students, researchers and entrepreneurs”.
What about those who are already in Europe and have no skills or reasonable fear of persecution, meaning that their applications for asylum will fail? In a splendid euphemism, African governments will be asked to offer greater “cooperation” with "return and readmission policies” – in other words, with taking back their citizens who are deported from EU countries for failing to make the grade.
In sum, African leaders will be asked to encourage their best qualified citizens to start new lives in Europe, in return for taking back their least qualified. This amounts to a glaring example of the “heads I win, tails you lose” school of diplomacy. The bargain on offer in Malta might be grand, but it is hardly fair.
The flaw with the entire scheme can be simply stated: the EU’s proposed “Action Plan” has almost no bearing on the real world. There is the obvious problem that the proposal, as it stands, amounts to a manifesto for depriving Africa of its most highly skilled and expensively trained citizens.
But there is also the point that such people are not obvious candidates for the smugglers’ boats in any case. If the goal is to deprive the traffickers of business, then offering legal migration routes to doctors, nurses, teachers and brain surgeons will not make a great deal of difference.
The smugglers will still make plenty of money out of the unemployed, the refugees, the landless and the dispossessed. True enough, the draft plan has much to say about addressing the causes of migration, including conflict and poverty.
In a continent where millions have been displaced by war, European and African leaders will “promote economic opportunities for displaced persons, that would also benefit the host communities and reduce dependency on humanitarian assistance”. They will “enhance the provision of basic services” and offer “increased access to education, water, health services, and vocational training”.
These are worthy goals, but how will they be achieved – and at what cost? As if this was not sufficiently unrealistic, the plan also promises more “support to diplomatic initiatives for some of the most urgent crisis situations in Africa”. These conflicts can, apparently, be resolved “through mediation and inclusive dialogues”.
Phrases of this kind would be greeted with blank incomprehension in, for example, the plains of northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, where Boko Haram’s vicious onslaught against the innocent has driven over 1.5 million people from their homes. The idea that Boko Haram’s ravages might be ended by “inclusive dialogue” – rather than the skilful use of force – is fanciful.
But African leaders will no doubt be given incentives to pretend to agree to most of the package. The EU will offer a “trust fund” of €1.8 billion (£1.3 billion) to countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya in order to address the “root causes of irregular migration”.
African elites will be given more direct reasons to agree. Wealthy Africans, particularly those with relatives in government positions, value their trips to Europe and bitterly resent the difficulties they encounter with applying for visas. If you meet a European ambassador in Africa, your conversation may well be interrupted as the diplomat takes a call from someone pleading for a visa.
Under the Malta plan, this should all become much easier. European leaders will promise to “facilitate the visa issuing processes for certain types of visitors”, including “holders of diplomatic passports” – or, put more bluntly, rich and well-connected Africans.
There is a still deeper problem with the whole idea of summits and diplomacy providing a solution to the migration crisis. The countries which produce the greatest number of refugees often have the most poisonous relations with the Western world.
Of all the nations in Africa, little Eritrea – with only six million people – is the single biggest source of refugees. Over 17,000 Eritreans entered the EU between April and June this year, more than twice as many as the next biggest African provider of desperate people – giant Nigeria with 180 million people – which supplied 7,400 migrants.
Eritreans are not fleeing civil war; instead, they are running away from a brutal dictator called Isaias Afewerki who rules with such an iron fist that he has made his country into Africa’s version of North Korea.
Mr Isaias does not cooperate with European initiatives: on the contrary, he routinely accuses Western governments of plotting his downfall. No plan signed in Malta or anywhere else is going to stop Mr Isaias from oppressing and tormenting his people. For as long as he does so, Eritrea will remain the number one African exporter of refugees to Europe.
Another country high on the list of “countries of origin” for migrants is Somalia, which has endured decades of civil war. No EU leader has the power to make Somalia peaceful or Eritrea free and democratic.
The truth is that European governments are largely powerless to cope with the forces unleashed by global migration. Rather than admit their impotence, they hide behind the platitudes of an “Action Plan” that can never be actioned.