As Italy and Greece Burn, Their Leaders Obsess About Immigrants

EU leaders fearmonger about immigration while neglecting the real and deadly threats posed by climate change. The entire Euro-Mediterranean region should collaborate on behalf of displaced persons, against fossil fuel giants, and toward decarbonization.

A man stands ready to fight flames as they engulf a hillside on July 27, 2023, in Apollana, Rhodes, Greece. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Europe is burning. Hitting almost 110°F, Rome has broken its heat record, set only last year, and some Italian hospitals have reported inpatient numbers reaching COVID-era levels. Special flights headed to Corfu and Rhodes to evacuate tourists from fires rolling across the Greek islands, while the locals are stuck with the consequences. Even the Alps are pushing 100°F. Across the Mediterranean, Algeria recorded the hottest night in African history.

This is a global crisis, requiring global leadership: extreme temperatures and flooding have struck from the United States to China, Brazil, and the Asian subcontinent. Existing supranational political structures like the European Union (EU) could — and should — be heading up the response. And yet as the earth cracks, the trees blaze, and supplies run out, Europe is looking squarely in the wrong direction.

Europe, the Heatwave, and the Border

While emergency warnings ordered Romans to stay indoors during daytime, far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni hosted an international conference in the city to call for urgent cooperation across Europe and Africa — not to tackle the climate crisis, but to control migration. Italian media chose to fiddle while Rome quite literally burned, preferring to report the alarmed coverage abroad than what was actually happening.

It’s common to hear opponents of migration claim they have to focus on people at home rather than help foreigners. Yet the worst climate-stricken European states like Italy and Greece devote more resources and political time to persecuting, detaining, and attacking people on their shores than to protecting those whose homes are ablaze. Compare, for instance, Greece’s shining new detention camps to its weak record on emergency response.

It would be wrong, however, to pin this problem of inaction solely on Europe’s border states, themselves wracked by a decade of crisis in which EU-enforced austerity has played no small part. Their governments argue, not entirely unreasonably, that richer northern European states push the responsibility to respond to migration emergencies onto poorer frontier states. Meanwhile, European institutions publicly castigate the human rights records of frontier states (whether EU members, or Libya and Tunisia) while continuing to in practice collaborate in and even encourage abuses.

For those suffering and dying at the world’s most lethal border, the situation is extreme. But at a statistical level, migration is very far from the existential crisis it is usually presented as in European politics. By comparison, in Colombia — a much poorer country than any EU member state, and one that has absorbed millions of people seeking asylum in the last years — migration still does not hold the existential death grip it does on European politics. Indeed, Europe was perfectly capable of absorbing several million Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion last year. The so-called migration crisis has always been a confected problem. Now, it is an even more dangerous one that robs political focus from the conflagration threatening lives and livelihoods on both sides of the Mediterranean.

People seeking safety are also the first victims of the climate emergency. Firstly, disaster has brought new risks of displacement across the Euro-Mediterranean region — forest fires northwest of Athens have torn into residential communities, while climate shocks have impacted people caught up in conflicts across North Africa. The effects of this year’s weather, be they on the Greek tourism industry or Algerian crop yields, may become a much longer-term contributor to people having to move. Its consequences for people already displaced have been brutal; at the US border, bodies of people who collapsed from heatstroke are being recovered.

Across the Euro-Mediterranean region, detention centers, refugee camps, and informal settlements will be stalked by shortages and health risks, and the sun on a warming ocean will give little quarter to the people expected to make desperate Mediterranean and Aegean crossings this summer. Yet this emergency is manageable. With a coordinated effort across countries — and the EU would be strongly positioned to play a leading role, here — people could be fully supported to stay home where they can and leave where they must. Resources can and should be made available on this basis, including investment to protect livelihoods and industry, provide effective disaster relief, and facilitate journeys to short- and longer-term resettlement. Such efforts sit neatly within the project of bringing global temperatures under control in this generation while managing the existing damage.

Choosing Priorities

Politics is about priorities, and Europe’s choices have been clear. Meloni’s twenty-country migration conference did mouth old platitudes about the importance of development cooperation. This project, labeled “Team Europe,” is an invented and unaccountable structure, as one member of European Parliament pointed out, in which Meloni stands side by side with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Their two outings this summer aimed at “cooperation” with Tunisia over migration control first and foremost. This is the same Tunisia that in the last few months, following its president’s racist speech against “ethnic replacement” by black migrants, saw numerous attacks on migrants, whose attempts to flee resulted in two hundred deaths at sea in one ten-day stretch.

The Tunisia deal is just the latest iteration of Europe’s long mission to force states at the bloc’s periphery to act as border police. This has had brutal consequences, from drownings and enslavement in Libya, to the 2022 Melilla massacre at the Spanish-Moroccan border, and the grim EU deal with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Such “externalized” border control is pursued across the political mainstream — the pact with Turkey was spearheaded by current center-left candidate for Dutch prime minister Frans Timmermans. It is frequently framed as an issue of development. The EU provided biometric services to African states ostensibly for voter registration, yet these in fact provided a fingerprint database for EU migration control; it also funded the Rapid Support Forces to prevent migration across North Africa, which have amassed an abysmal human rights record that is being reprised in Sudan’s new civil conflict. Migration control by any means necessary has been the North Star of European foreign policy for nearly a decade now, and its stranglehold is only worsening.

Even from the perspective of Europe’s own security, the primacy of migration control in foreign policy is deeply damaging. When Morocco briefly relaxed its role as Europe’s border guard in anger at a perceived Spanish foreign policy slight, a humanitarian crisis occurred at Ceuta in 2021. That winter, Russia and Belarus were accused of “weaponizing” migration flows at the Polish border to destabilize Europe. Turkey’s recently reelected president Erdoğan has repeatedly attempted to use migration control as a bargaining chip in international affairs.

In one sense, this provides European powers with an excuse for lethal inaction; the misery at the border can simply be blamed on some non-EU actor (and this is indeed the wider image that the externalization policy confects). Yet in a broader sense, circumstances in which rival or smaller powers can force their agendas onto the global stage by manipulating European paranoia about (again, in general terms, quite small) migration flows are hardly healthy for EU states. However, the problem isn’t just the negative consequences of the current approach, but also the missed opportunities of a different one. A world where the main incentive behind European action is preventing climate breakdown — and not stopping people in need from moving — would enable a different, more constructive set of interstate relationships.

There are incentives that militate against a change of approach. Most obviously, much of the European right, having presided over manifest domestic failures, would not be able to win elections without stoking fear and paranoia toward an external target. But it is not the far right that actually controls the lucrative wheels of European international policy. The border-control training that German police, private arms companies, and state-development agencies have provided to Saudi security forces (ones with a track record of shooting people at said border) speaks to the deep web of relationships involved. The global border and surveillance industry is fully enmeshed in the commanding heights of Europe, and will become more so as Europe’s border army Frontex is set to expand.

Meanwhile, as Friends of the Earth has established, there is a feedback loop of personnel and agendas between the security, land degradation, and fossil fuel industries. In the current energy crisis, big oil companies again have their eyes set on North Africa — despite the well-documented relationship between fossil fuel extraction, destabilization in the region, and the chaotic foreign policy agenda of former colonial power France. Many powerful corporate and political interests benefit from a Europe that relentlessly focuses on a confected strategic challenge that they can cash in on — migration control — ahead of a real and deadly one — climate change — whose resolution could threaten such (literal and metaphorical) profits.

Pro-Europeans’ Dilemma

Europe has been locked in a near-decade-long struggle between more pro-EU neoliberals and more critical right-wingers, regenerated in the Trump era of conservative insurgencies. The Left has largely failed to break into and supplant this divide. The Right’s approach is easy enough to understand: blend racialized paranoia about migration with genuine grievances about the way EU authorities have treated the bloc’s own poorer citizens, in order to build a nationalist bloc.

Why so many of Brussels’s liberal Europeanists have fallen in with a strategy that risks fatally undermining their project is a little harder to fathom. Perhaps they are genuinely committed for ideological reasons to vast externalized border controls and do not fundamentally disagree with the Right. Perhaps they follow the view of a former Donald Tusk adviser that outflanking the Right and reassuring conservative voters is the only way to arrest the right wing’s rise. Perhaps they are simply rather vulnerable to lobbying and groupthink. In any case, their lack of will to prevent the hard right from making migration into Europe’s primary issue du jour threatens their overall project of a powerful Europe as an independent pole in a multipolar world.

It can be debated whether this is desirable — and surely the Left’s absence of a clear shared position on the European project has somewhat hamstrung it. But regardless, the Europeanists’ ambitions are already on shaky ground. The post–Ukraine war return to militarized international rivalries has displaced Germany’s centrality in Europe while shifting high-level mindsets back toward Cold War­–era NATO-led structures that increase US influence. Though Europeanists in the UK like to paint Brexit as collapsing any vestigial British global influence, post-Brexit Britain is conducting effective diplomacy in Europe through its hawkishness on Ukraine, which it no doubt will extend into the nonmilitary sphere. Even on migration, the much-vaunted (and concerning) new EU asylum pact does little to fix the underlying issues that led to the long debate over its adoption, or the ongoing rift between Europe’s core and periphery that a section of the Right continues to exploit.

For the European hard right, weakening climate action sits alongside strengthening migration control at the top of the agenda. For the past months, a right alliance led by Meloni’s Italy but representing countries from all corners of the EU has sought to ransom Brussels over migration and garner new funding for border control, with some key successes. While Von der Leyen may have been the architect of European border expansion, those same forces, among them fellow German conservative and European People’s Party leader Manfred Weber, have left her fighting for her future. The threat to her chance for a second term is such that Washington appears to have attempted to throw her a lifeline by offering to back her for NATO secretary general. The lesson that many in the center have taken from the Right’s effective maneuvering over migration since 2015 — that repeated capitulation was the only answer — has only strengthened the Right’s position, and not only on migration.

Von der Leyen’s opponents’ target is the expansive European Green Deal and climate and nature action more broadly. Much of Europe’s right are climate skeptics or even outright deniers. Using language typical on the right, Meloni has spoken of the current heatwave as unpredictable bad weather; never mind that it was entirely predictable. Part of their anger is at the ambition and successes of EU climate measures, such as banning new petrol and diesel cars or bringing in the world’s first carbon tariff. While Europe continues to rely on highly questionable market-based solutions to emissions, the standards within them have at least been strengthened.

But the counterattack has been effective too; Weber’s group inflicted heavy damage on the recent nature restoration law (which eventually passed with a shallow majority). Agribusiness played a role in this attack, while fossil fuel lobbyists have been consistently on the offensive. Measures to reduce pesticide use and greenwashing have also come under fire. Critics have questioned whether the EU has access to the funding needed to deliver on its ambitions. In short, achieving current climate targets — much less expanding on them, or building pressure on other powers — requires unrelenting political focus that does not currently exist.

The Pivot

The EU’s self-image is very different from its reality. Europeanists talk of the polity they desire in terms of liberal values rooted in a heritage of postwar peacemaking and cooperation. In practice the EU acts to impose fiscal straitjackets, enforce vicious boundaries on the movement of people, and — more recently — incubate a resurgent militarism, albeit one still dependent on US sponsorship. Its politics is fraught and fractured, both within and between partisan groups and countries.

But the only path out of the Europeanists’ current quagmire is the realization of their own self-image — not capitulating, but instead taking up a single-minded historic focus on solving the grandest challenge there is. Europe already has a less noxious climate discourse than the United States. There is widespread support for decarbonization, and there is a record of climate achievements; the current weather shocks provide a clear and visceral case for the urgency of doubling down on this approach.

Denialism is largely fringe now, and while greenwashing and false solutions may have replaced it, in theory most of European politics is committed to a transition. There is a great deal for European leadership to build on; it simply needs the political courage to both say that addressing climate change and its consequences is the priority above all else, and then to actually put that statement into practice. This means a great pivot from migration to climate, with all that such a turn symbolizes — from nationalism to internationalism, from competition to cooperation, and from being led by vested interests to constraining them.

Comparing migration to the climate may seem arbitrary. But politics is often a zero-sum game. And as time is consumed by the never-ending migration debate, always conducted on terms that empower the Right, attention is sapped from climate diplomacy. The EU has been a significant global leader (compared to the meager competition) on climate targets, but those achievements are not secure, and there is much, much more that can be done.

This question has been brought into relief by an unprecedented, record-smashing global emergency. This is far from the first wake-up call we have had, but it is perhaps the most dramatic. Three decades of severely insufficient climate action have resulted in emissions that could have been avoided. Fossil fuel giants and their allies have worked hard to increase both fossil fuel demand and supply and plug solutions that avoid the need for a real shift, while politics has focused on chimeras. On the day new data was published claiming that July has been the hottest month on record — potentially the hottest in 120,000 years — Shell and Total were announcing second-quarter profits (with reports from Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP to come in the days following). Changing course is an opportunity to recover a sense of purpose in a politics that often seems to lack one. This year’s events cannot be allowed to melt away before the electoral cycle resumes next year.

This is an urgent task for governments across the world. In Europe, it means building a conception of solidarity larger than the EU itself, one that does not deal with Africa by throwing up walls. Rather, it must see both continents as part of a shared region, bound rather than separated by water, its recent history of colonial bloodshed contrasted by a longer history of interdependence.

In practice, this means both rapid decarbonization in the richer countries and financing a just transition in those who cannot afford it. It means applying the finite resources of political capital and diplomatic pressure against carbon giants, not people seeking safety. It means using the green transition to achieve economic justice, not simply to extend neocolonial relations. It means a concerted effort, from the English coast to Greek islands to the Sahara, to put in place flood and drought defenses and emergency relief measures under well-resourced Euro-Mediterranean institutions that can coordinate both incident response and long-term planning.

Such longer-term action includes safeguarding the food supplies and resources people depend on; it also includes rethinking our attitude to migration as we support both the right to stay and the right to move. Most people will not want to leave their homes, much less their countries, but Europe can channel the better part of its heritage — its contribution to the development of the Refugee Convention in the chaos following World War II — to address the needs of those who do.

None of this is straightforward. It will require a delicate balance of patience and urgency; of solving complex problems and simplifying them; and of single-minded diplomacy and engagement across political traditions. It’s a process for communities and campaigns and grassroots movements, as much as politics and big institutions. But the moment demands nothing less. This summer of fires and floods can presage further disasters, food shortages, and threats to life and livelihood — or it can mark the moment that we changed course.