Europe in Africa: Could a new city state on a man-made island save refugee lives?

A map of the imagined Europe in Africa island. Image: Theo Deutinger.

What if you could save the lives of thousands of refugees by offering them sanctuary – and a European passport – on a purpose-built island in the Mediterranean, complete with football stadium, business park and university? Panacea or dangerous dystopia, Europe in Africa is an idea which cannot be ignored.

“I’m an optimist by definition,” says Austrian architect, writer and socio-cultural map maker Theo Deutinger. Appalled by the relentless tragedies in the Mediterranean, as African migrants fail time and time again to find a safe passage to Europe, he began drafting a proposal for the shuttling of asylum seekers to a refugee republic on reclaimed land between Tunisia and Italy.

Plonking a traumatised diaspora on an isolated island may seem a surprising solution, but Deutinger believes that founding your own autonomous city state repairs many of the pitfalls of the current system.

“People arrive here [in Europe] and are for years in a temporary situation, not knowing if they have to go back, going through the asylum-seeker procedure, not allowed to work. Three, four years of uncertainty – sometimes longer - just waiting, where you lose all energy and hope you had.”

with Europe in Africa (EiA), Deutinger explains, there are no more delays: “You can start to build a new life [straight away]. You can work, have your own finances and build your own future.”

Here’s how EiA works

The island would initially be an EU protectorate, amusingly expanding the EU, while the British government is in knots trying to shrink it. Europe in Africa is, says Deutinger, “a place where you can escape to.” Brexit exiles are also, he says – without raising an eyebrow – most welcome there.

The proposed location. Image: Theo Deutinger.

The first settlers would be experts in construction, city infrastructure, law and economics. A constitution would be drawn up and European businesses would be granted the right to trade there to provide work for the first wave of inhabitants.

Initially funded by the EU, the city would move towards self-sufficiency over a 25 year period and return the loan. Wages and consumer prices would be adjusted in accordance with the local economy, and EiA would be free either to develop its own currency or adopt the Euro. After five years, inhabitants can apply for EU citizenship and move freely between countries in the EU.


Beyond the nation state model

The advantage of EiA over refugee cities like Zaatari in Jordan is that the land is a tabula rasa: neutral and without history. This avoids the conflict seen in other new states such as Israel, the USA or Australia, where earlier settlers held a claim to the territory. “Land that is completely new has no history and is fairer,” claims Deutinger. “It has no past, only a future.”

Deutinger’s project urges us to think beyond what he describes as “the heavily guarded model of sovereign states” and look at current structures with fresh eyes.

He gives the example of a passport, which is “one ticket to the world” or “one emblem which marks you as a person which should not be accepted” – depending on whose hands it’s in. “We now experience the flip side of our good inventions and good intentions,” Deutinger adds wistfully.

The nascent city state, however, is free to adopt new economic and social models beyond what Deutinger describes as the “greed” and “gridlock” of existing systems.

How the process works. Image: Theo Deutinger.

Though he acknowledges that the project is “quite a big experiment”, he insists that the new settlers must not become our guinea pigs. If we want to explore social change, we should take up the challenge ourselves, he says. “The island has not the responsibility to solve these problems.”

But don’t expect a utopia, Deutinger warns. “The world we live in is not perfect,” he says, and nor will the island be. “It’s an illusion that there won’t be crime, but there is also energy [to start a new life] which is underestimated.”

The challenges – legal, logistical, financial – are manifold, but a team is building around Deutinger, intent on making EiA a reality. By his own admission, the project is not ideal, but governments are yet to bring something better to the table.

And with huge numbers still risking their lives at sea and attention focused on repatriating them, the death toll remains high. “The future can only be better,” says this unrelenting optimist – but it needs a radical rethink.

Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British journalist based in the Netherlands. She tweets at @DebNichollsLee.

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As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.