On arriving for the first time in decades on Spanish soil I realise that the last time I visited – as a child – General Franco was still in power. The memory of arriving at Spain’s border with France in 1963, the dusty crossing point with more donkeys than cars and the Spanish border guards with their exotic three-pointed Napoleonic Wars-era hats, is still strong.
After Franco’s passing in 1975 and the return of democracy, skilfully engineered by the restored King, Juan Carlos I, Spain transformed rapidly from having been a European backwater. Despite tenaciously high unemployment, the country feels prosperous and its capital dazzles with its well-mantained elegance and joie de vivre. The country’s transport infrastructure, including high-speed trains and a completed motorway network, is magnificent. Spain has also gone from a place where the Jesuits ran the secondary schools and marriage was only recognised if conducted in a Catholic church to one where its political and media elites share Europe’s standard leftish pieties, including a reluctance to insist on secure borders. That is so especially since the Socialists replaced the centrist People’s Party in government in June.
I’m visiting Spain at the invitation of British Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan. The parliamentary faction of which he’s a leading light, the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) – which groups parties including the British Conservatives, Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Slovakia’s wonderfully-named Ordinary People Party – is anxious to look at the latest front line in Europe’s migration crisis and to hear about Australia’s experience in stopping the boats.
Tony Abbott has been a regular at ECR events. But despite Australia’s huge interest in ensuring that Europe doesn’t effectively go under in a tide of Third World immigration, our federal bureaucracy has tended to be hard of hearing in response to European requests to share our expertise in how to stop the people smugglers.
Is our experience in stopping illegal boat arrivals relevant to Europe? The government’s line has been that while our policies worked for us, Europe’s circumstances are different and we don’t seek to evangelise. In fact Europe and Australia have much in common as destinations for the people smugglers. In both cases our territory can be reached relatively easily by boat from foreign territories. Christmas Island is about the same distance to Java as Lampedusa is to Libya.
The ECR visit to Spain is well-timed. Spain recently overtook Italy as Europe’s prime arrival point for illegal migrant boats. Since Italy’s new centre-right government took office in June and interior minister Matteo Salvini refused further docking rights to ships ferrying would-be migrants to Italian ports, the people smugglers, according to Spanish officials, have given up on Libya/Tunisia as a base for operations into Europe and have shifted west to Morocco. The officials say the shift has been encouraged by the return to office in June of Spain’s Socialists – the same month Italy moved politically in the opposite direction. About 22,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Spain during the new government’s first first five months – more than the 21,000 for the whole of 2017.
Since June, boats have started leaving the north Moroccan coast for the Spanish mainland in significant numbers. While many get there under their own steam (the distance at its narrowest point is only about 15 kilometres), since the return to power of the Socialists, Spanish coast guard and NGO vessels are ferrying to the mainland would-be migrants who claim to be in distress in the international waters between Morocco and Spain. This, according to officials, wasn’t happening under the previous People’s Party government. Spain didn’t have an anti-illegal immigration party until the founding of Vox in 2013. Last Sunday it stormed into Spanish politics winning a higher than forecast 11 per cent of the vote in elections in the southern region of Andalusia – where most of the boats arrive. It’s expected also to do well in upcoming European Parliament and general elections.
The ECR visit to Spain includes its north African port of Melilla, which forms one of the only land borders between Europe and Africa – Spanish Ceuta is the other. Melilla is surrounded by a six-metre high double fence with traps in between. A daunting prospect you’d think, yet one Spanish politician commented to me that the fence is ‘too low’. Since July, 900 mostly Sub-Saharan Africans have succeeded in scaling the fences at Melilla and Ceuta, injuring many police in violent attacks including with stones and excrement. Police guarding the fences are allowed to respond with restraint, but not force.
Spain strives for good relations with Morocco, but this seems to be a one-way street. Not only does it appear to be doing nothing to stop boat departures for Spain but it refuses to take back Moroccan minors who get illegally into Melilla. At the same time, Spain does appear to be a soft touch. It has allowed thousands of Moroccan women to give birth in Melilla – meaning their children can acquire Spanish citizenship.
After two days, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for the moment this corner of Europe simply lacks the resolution to halt the relentless incoming tide. This is depressing, but Madrid’s two great art galleries, the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, provide a therapeutic antidote. Suitable places to contemplate the glories of Western civilisation and whether Europe has enough self-belief or will to defend its culture and way of life.