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EU attacks anti-immigrant 'misinformation, untruths and fake news' from far-right

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Europe's migration crisis is over, according to a new European Commission report; Gerald Butts' testimony in Ottawa today about the SNC-Lavalin affair revolves largely around issues of perspective.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A baby is loaded into the rescue vessel of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, after being rescued in the Central Mediterranean Sea about 72 kilometers from Al Khums, Libya, on Dec. 21, 2018. A report on migration released Wednesday morning in Brussels says that just under 150,000 people arrived in Europe by 'irregular' means in 2018, a 25 per cent drop from the year before. (Olmo Calvo/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • Europe's migration crisis has come to an end, according to a new European Commission report which decries the "misinformation, untruths and fake news" still being spread by anti-immigrant politicians.
  • Gerald Butts' testimony in Ottawa today about the SNC-Lavalin affair revolved largely around issues of perspective.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


Immigration backlash

Europe's migration crisis has come to an end, according to a new European Commission report which decries the "misinformation, untruths and fake news" still being spread by anti-immigrant politicians.

The migration "progress report," released this morning in Brussels, says that just under 150,000 people arrived in Europe by "irregular" means in 2018. That's a 25 per cent drop from the year before, and 90 per cent below the 2015 peak when more than a million arrivals were counted.

So far in 2019, the UN's International Organization for Migration says that 10,707 migrants have made their way to European nations — 9,286 by sea and 1,421 by land. At least 225 people are known or presumed to have died during their journeys.

The ship Luz de Mar arrives at the Algeciras port with 232 immigrants who were rescued by Spanish Maritime Rescue from small boats in the Strait of Gibraltar on Aug. 29, 2018. So far in 2019, the UN says 10,707 migrants have made their way to European nations, the vast majority by sea. (A.Carrasco Ragel/EPA-EFE)

Faced with rising anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by Europe's far-right populists, the Commission is going on the attack, also issuing a new fact sheet that tackles 14 "myths" about migrants, including the idea that they spread disease or create an economic burden.

"From alarming rhetoric painting all migrants as terrorists and criminals, to inaccuracies and distortions about what the EU is doing, the debate is highly politicized," the document notes. "Fiction spreads like wildfire on social media and more often than not, facts get lost in all the noise."

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch politician who serves as the first vice-president of the Commission, told reporters that the EU has made "significant progress with tangible results" over the past four years, and that "Europe is no longer experiencing the migration crisis we lived in 2015."

The report comes amidst an ongoing battle between Brussels and anti-immigrant populists in Hungary and Italy.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party is facing expulsion from the EU's biggest political bloc, the centre-right European People's Party, over his repeated claims that Europe's "useful idiots" are too lax migrants. A billboard campaign featuring Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros has "crossed red lines," Manfred Weber, the bloc's candidate for European Commission president, said yesterday.

Dimitrios Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, holds a press conference on Progress under the European Agenda on Migration at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday. (Stephanie Lecocq/EPA-EFE)

And simmering tensions between Brussels and the deeply indebted Italian government over a proposed budget that fails to meet austerity targets seem to have emboldened Matteo Salvini, the country's fiercely anti-migrant interior minister. Today, he was gloating as paramilitary police moved in to dismantle a shantytown in southern Italy that has become home to 1,500 migrants.

"As promised ... we went from words to actions," Salvini told reporters. 

Most migrants to Europe now travel via the Western Mediterranean route, landing in Spain. Italy, which has refused to allow rescue boats to dock at its ports, saw an 80 per cent drop in migrant arrivals last year.

Greece, which was the focal point of the crisis in 2015, saw a 30 per cent uptick in arrivals last year after Turkish authorities relaxed their crackdown on smugglers. Anti-migrant sentiment is rising there, too.

On Sunday, police arrested dozens of protestors on the island of Lesbos after they erected a large metal cross that was meant to serve as a "foreigners go home" message. And a public prosecutor has launched an investigation into reports that Greek authorities have been conspiring with paramilitary groups to physically push boatloads of asylum seekers back across the dangerous Evros River to Turkey.

The declared end to Europe's crisis comes as efforts ramp up to overturn the national emergency that President Donald Trump has proclaimed over America's southern border.

Members of the U.S. Border Patrol check barbed-wire barriers installed ahead of the possible massive arrival of migrants at the Zaragoza International Bridge on the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 22. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. House of Representatives has already condemned Trump's end-run efforts to fund his border wall, and there are indications that several Republicans may break ranks and censure the president when the resolution comes to a vote in the Senate next week.

But the White House has received a big boost from the latest figures released by the Department of Homeland Security, showing that 76,000 migrants crossed from Mexico last month, double the number in February 2018. Most were families and travelling in large groups seeking asylum from violence-ravaged Central American nations.

Irregular crossings and detentions along the southern frontier are on pace to reach their highest point in a decade, but remain well below the year 2000 peak when 1 million migrants arrived from Mexico and no emergency declaration was in place.


Differing points of view

Gerry Butts' testimony in Ottawa today about the SNC-Lavalin affair revolved largely around issues of perspective, writes The National co-host Rosemary Barton.

Gerry Butts is not someone who takes centre stage. He doesn't even seem to like it, frankly.

But today, the Prime Minister's former principal secretary did just that.

Gerald Butts, who quit last month as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief aide, testifying before the House of Commons justice committee in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

For more than two hours in front of the Justice Committee in Ottawa, Butts calmly tried to take apart what Jody Wilson-Raybould had told the same committee last week.

He did it while carefully avoiding calling the former AG names, without disparaging her, and very particularly, without calling her a liar.

Instead, he admits it is possible in this instance that two different people have two different views of what happened.

Contrary to what Wilson-Raybould has stated, Butts says no pressure was applied to the former AG to consider a deferred prosecution agreement for the Quebec company SNC-Lavalin.

He says there were, however, conversations about how to use the new law, whether everything had been considered, and whether outside legal advice was needed.

But it is clear Butts does not deem the communications to be what Wilson-Raybould called a "sustained effort' with "political interference."

In fact, to emphasize that he does not view it as pressure, Butts told the committee today that, "11 people made 20 points of contact with her or her office over a period of close to four months. Four of these people never met with the Attorney General in person. That's two meetings and two phone calls per month for the Minister and her office, on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 jobs."

Butts adds that he hadn't heard that Wilson-Raybould had made a final decision on the deferred prosecution agreement until she testified last week (something the former minister says she articulated very clearly to other staff inside the Prime Minister's office). Under those circumstances, Butts suggests the ongoing conversations were understandable.

Butts told the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on Parliament Hill on Wednesday that communications with Jody Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin case, 'was not about second-guessing the decision. It was about ensuring that the attorney general was making her decision with the absolute best evidence possible.' (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Moreover, Butts says the former Justice Minister never once raised anything with him as being improper. "Why are we having this discussion now and not in the middle of September, or October, or December?"

The first time the issue of SNC-Lavalin was raised as being somehow related to the cabinet shuffle that saw Wilson-Raybould moved to Veterans Affairs, Butts says, was during a discussion with Jane Philpott, when she told him it was suggested by her former colleague that it might be interpreted as a demotion.

These are just some of the contradictions between the testimonies delivered by Butts and Wilson-Raybould, and there are more questions to be answered. It is quite possible Wilson-Raybould will be called back before the committee to try and compare and contrast the two testimonies.

In the meantime, we are calling in our second At Issue panel of the week tonight to sort through things — and perhaps more fundamentally, to answer the question about whether today's testimony has helped the Prime Minister and stanched the bleeding of this political crisis.

The committee continues this afternoon with a return of the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Deputy Minister of Justice. I'll be watching that, too.

I'll see you from the West Block tonight for At Issue, while Chantal Hebert, Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells will be in their regular locations to dig into what they have heard today.

- Rosemary Barton

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    A few words on ... 

    How a cabinet shuffle went awry.


    Quote of the moment

    "When you boil this all down, the only thing we ever asked the Attorney General to do was to get a second opinion. And we also made it clear that she was free to accept that opinion, or not."

    - Gerald Butts, the prime minister's former principal secretary, provides the House of Commons Justice Committee with a very different take on the SNC-Lavalin affair.


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    Today in history

    March 6, 1978: Joan Rivers, comedian and film director 

    The comedian visits Peter Gzowski on his 90 Minutes Live talk show to promote "the funniest movie ever made." Rabbit Test, which Rivers wrote and directed, featured Billy Crystal as the world's first pregnant man. But it also boasted an only-in-the-70s cast that included Paul Lynde, Jimmy Walker, Charlotte Rae, Billy Barty and Roddy McDowall in drag. Somehow, it ended up being a commercial failure.

    Joan Rivers, comedian and film director

    45 years ago
    Duration 16:14
    The comedian appears on CBC-TV's 90 Minutes Live to promote her film Rabbit Test in 1978.

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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Jonathon Gatehouse

    CBC Investigative Journalist

    Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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