Interview. The historian and politician Andrea Riccardi spoke with il manifesto about the year ahead.

It’s ‘their suicide,’ scholar says of Eastern Europe

On Syria: “If there is a plan for rebuilding, the Syrians will return home in the future, but today the country is Balkanized. There are no safe conditions.”

On Africa: “There is a revolution among young Africans who want to live better and are fleeing war.”

On Europe: “There is the unfounded impression of feeling overrun by refugees. Actually, not placing peace in Syria as a central topic was a mistake and a sign of the E.U.’s weakness.”

The 66-year-old historian Andrea Riccardi, who held the position of Italian Minister of International Cooperation in the Monti government, has played a role in the past as mediator in several conflicts in Africa and beyond. A “modern hero” according to Time magazine, in 1968 he founded the Community of Sant’Egidio. This organization, together with the Federation of Protestant Churches and the Waldensian Church, organized humanitarian corridors that so far have allowed 350 Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Lebanon to come to Italy. “A success, in which France will also participate in 2017,” he says.

Professor, what do you expect for 2017?

In regards to immigration, the main problems will concern Syria and Africa. Syria is a factory of refugees. Europeans complain of being invaded by the Syrian refugees, who actually are found mostly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In the six years of the Syrian conflict, we, as Europeans, did not intervene or we did wrong. And here is the first contradiction: We did not lead the peace efforts, believing that the war of others was not our problem or that the conflict could be isolated. Not making this a priority was at the same time an error and a weakness of the European Union. Now there’s this Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement, which, however, I do not think will limit the flow of refugees.

Then there is Africa, a continent on the move.

African immigration is partly environmental and partly economic and partly due to instability. The idea to stop them at the border or to settle them in the first host country is insane.

The government focuses on migration deals. Do you agree?

It is a fair policy. I have always been convinced that African leaders act irresponsibly towards their migrants. Have you ever seen an African president come to Lampedusa and bow down in front of the victims? Immigration is an outlet for these countries, because migrants finance part of local economies with remittances.

The results of the investments promised in the African countries will not be seen before one, maybe two generations. Meanwhile, however, there is a claim to halt migrants immediately.

I would be more optimistic. I do not say that the migration compacts are the solution, but we need to enhance cooperation and empower African governments in sensitizing the younger generation. In Africa, they live in a permanent 1968, and young jobless people are an element of instability for governments, for which it is best to send them away. But this is an anti-democratic system, which puts people’s lives at risk. I know the young Africans and I know that the choice of leaving and crossing the desert represents a kind of revolt, because they want to live better than how they live. It is the revolt of the youth. Let’s not forget that there is also a lot of people who are forced to flee. I’m thinking about Nigeria, the Horn of Africa, Somalia. They are fleeing from war. This revolution will not stop in one year, but a European cooperation policy is the right direction. Europe and Africa do not have separate destinies, and Africa’s fate will involve us.

The Dublin reform will be one of the first issues that the E.U. will face in 2017. For now, however, we do not see anything good.

We are in a time when the European Union is struggling to exist. Dublin, as it is now, is basically the agreement of those living outside the spirit of the union. On the other hand, many states have understood that the immigration issue wins and loses elections, so they do not want to socialize a problem like this. And this is the dramatic crisis of Europe. But I am worried not just about Dublin, a myopic reform, but about walls in Eastern Europe, starting with Hungary. When we celebrate in March the Treaty of Rome, we will have to say what Europe means for us.

Meanwhile, the migrant crisis has produced the overwhelming advance of populism in Europe.

This happened primarily because, in the past, a political left or center-left wanted to hide the migrant question, thinking it was better not to talk about as not to lose votes. It’s true, it causes a loss of votes, but we must have the courage to say very clearly that we need migrants because we have an incredible demographic vacuum. Countries that close their borders like Hungary will be old soon and will have to invite migrants into their own land. However, they will no longer have the ability to integrate the migrants because they will be countries of old people. Then they will be defeated.

As for the migrants, the only good news in 2016 is the humanitarian corridors that Sant’Egidio organizes together with the Federation of Protestant Churches and the Waldensian Church.

It has been a successful experience at no cost to the country, because the families and communities assume the care of the Syrians and some Palestinians who arrive in Italy. We are negotiating an agreement with France for a new humanitarian corridor for 300 refugees. We are convinced that this is a fair solution, and it’s even in the interest of those countries that will soon be too old and must implore the arrival of migrants. But this will be their suicide pact and the loss of their history.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!