It is as if European governments were not warned about the current refugee crisis the serious consequences it could have for Europe’s foreign and security policy. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of refugees—particularly those fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq, unrest in Afghanistan, and repression in Eritrea—have risked their lives to reach Europe.
The refugees are beholden to gangs of smugglers, with Albanians taking the leading role in exacting huge fees to get the migrants to an EU country.
Unless the EU’s crisis management policy radically changes, the flow of refugees will continue. Few North African and Middle Eastern countries provide security, stability, or a democratic and economic perspective for their youth.
Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, said recently that he expected up to 800,000 asylum applications this year alone. Germany already has 289,000 pending asylum seekers on its books, with 40 percent coming from Kosovo, Albania, or Serbia, where there is no war or repression. At the same time, the European Commission is again trying to persuade all 28 EU member states to share the burden of refugees.
As it is, in most Eastern European countries there is an anti-Muslim sentiment and a deep reluctance to open the doors to people who are seeking security and freedom. Yet it surely should not be lost what freedom means for these countries, which until only twenty-six years ago were under the Communist yoke. Poland has now officially said it will accept Christians—as have Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Muslims, shamefully, are not welcomed.
As if that were not bad enough, Europe’s response to the refugee crisis has all the makings of weakening, not strengthening, Europe’s foreign and security policy.
Populist parties across Europe are whipping up anti-immigrant rhetoric. If governments pander to the populists, then Europe, by default, will become a fortress. Calls to dismantle the EU’s Schengen system, which did away with cross-border controls, will no doubt increase. That is exactly what these far-right parties want.
Were that to happen, any values Europe professes to have and any future plans to make Europe more seamlessly integrated would be undermined. This is damaging for Europe’s reputation as an open society committed to defending those values.
Furthermore, an inward-looking and xenophobic Europe would do untold harm to Europe’s influence in its Eastern and Southern neighborhoods—to the advantage of Russia.
Above all, Europe’s confused response to the refugee crisis confirms its weakness when it comes to crisis management. Crisis management is one of the tools the EU’s foreign policy boasts about. But because it is predicated on the use of soft power, EU crisis management has severe limitations.
Take Syria. Leaving aside sanctions against Damascus, the EU has had no policy for how to deal with the civil war in that country. It was just a matter of time before the politics of self-fulfilling prophecy became a reality, with a plethora of radical Islamist movements taking advantage of this shocking war.
With the benefit of hindsight, the EU should have acted in Syria by using hard power against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The longer the European governments sat on the sidelines, the more intractable the conflict became.
Yet opponents of hard power believe they are vindicated. They point to the damage bequeathed by NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya in 2011. There was no contingency planning for the day after—not that the leaders of that particular NATO mission, Britain and France, would ever admit it.
In Libya, the EU’s crisis management machine was almost nonexistent, even though the European Commission had known for several years about the potential scale of the refugee problem emanating from Libya and the political and social impact of overthrowing the regime of former strongman leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The vacuum left by the collapse of the regime was rapidly filled by a plethora of tribal movements as well as criminal and terrorist gangs—not to mention the havoc wreaked in nearby Mali.
The NATO mission should have been the ideal opportunity for the military side of NATO to be complemented by a robust EU civilian mission with a mandate to use force if needed to stabilize Libya’s state institutions. That didn’t happen. It was as if Europe—and, indeed, the United States—had learned nothing from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when that country’s state institutions were allowed to collapse.
Now, Europe is saddled with an ever-increasing refugee crisis. In practical terms, apart from pushing for nondiscriminatory burden sharing across all EU member states, the union can implement some stopgap measures. It can increase medical, social, education, and housing facilities in Jordan and Turkey, which have taken in millions of refugees.
The EU could also open talks with the Eritrean government. Young people are leaving this country in droves to escape repression and a near-permanent military conscription regime.
Nearer to home, since Albania is member of NATO and an EU candidate country, surely NATO and the EU can apply pressure on Tirana to rein in the criminal gangs who are demanding huge sums of money from the refugees.
These are Band-Aid measures. Ultimately, this is about the EU recognizing that its crisis management and soft power tools—both always too slow to react, let alone anticipate—can only go so far without hard power.