The new socialist Prime Minister's decision to allow a migrant rescue ship, the Aquarius, to dock in the eastern Mediterranean port of Valencia, made many Spaniards instantly proud, or prouder, to be Spanish. Here, for a few hours, or days, was a government that was prepared to employ the nation's resources where so often only empty rhetoric is to be found, and with such a dramatic and heart-wrenching matter: drowning migrants in the Mediterranean. The logistical and bureaucratic problems—food, water, extra ships, transfer of migrants, maritime permissions, etc.—are being fixed and, after some complaint from aid agencies about not offloading the migrants immediately, despite no country wanting to accept them 24 hours ago, the Aquarius will shortly set sail from its position between Malta and Sicily (Italy) towards the Spanish coast, where it is expected to arrive on Saturday. The Ministry of Defence has announced that the Spanish Navy will accompany the ships if necessary as they approach Spanish territorial waters. Mr. Sánchez yesterday made a grand humanitarian gesture that was well received by people and press around the world, as well as saving 629 lives. "We like Spain because it accepts us", one Nigerian woman told a Spanish journalist on board.
Politically, the move has positioned a newly benevolent Spain against the evil new Italian Home Secretary, Matteo Salvini, who ordered Italy's ports closed to the ship and then cried victory on the news breaking that Mr. Sánchez would allow it to dock. Domestically, the choice of the city of Valencia—where socialists govern—over the city of Barcelona—where the alternative left governs–was reportedly not left to chance, with the not irrelevant side effect of stopping Catalan separatists from notching up another media event on the list of atrocities perpetrated by bully-boy Francoist Spain. Diplomatically, Europe still has a problem. President Macron in France has accused the Italian government of "cynicism and irresponsibility". The European Commission's Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, welcomed Spain's decision on Monday—"real solidarity put into practice"—and said on Tuesday that Europe needs a structural solution to the ongoing crisis: "We cannot continue the political ping-pong of who is responsible". The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, issued a statement praising Mr. Sánchez's "courageous" decision: "the principle of rescue at sea is one that should never be in doubt". Indeed it should not.
But what happens next, beyond the grand momentary humanitarian gesture, the political points, the renewed national pride and the international congratulations?
The Aquarius is not and will not be the only ship in trouble this month or this summer. This European crisis, and the horrible deaths and suffering it has brought, is not in its first year. Is Spain's new migration policy now to accept all NGO rescue ships full of migrants from Africa, as fast as Mr. Salvini in Italy and Mr. Muscat in Malta can refuse them permission to offload hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of stranded souls in Palermo or Valletta? Will migrant smugglers now take note of the Spanish decision and push westwards, or perhaps increase the number of people being moved through the western Mediterranean route directly to Spain? Will more people in Africa hoping for a new start in Europe be encouraged by the Prime Minister's enthusiasm and decide to risk the trip? What should Spain and Europe do about that? Should Spain—which still has 3.8 million unemployed Spaniards to try to deal with—even be considering it? During the real-estate boom years in the 2000s, some 4.5 million immigrants moved to Spain in search of work and a better life without too many problems. How many resources and how much money should be dedicated to the problem? Do Spain and Europe—and this is the same question as last year or the year before—really want to spend the grand strategic resources and billions of euros needed to solve the problem? If we are going to spend money on fixing that problem, what other problems are we not going to fix in the meantime? What are our priorities and values, both nationally and on a European level?
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