Ian BondDirector of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform

Europe has been betraying refugees since Syria’s civil war began, but the situation is worsening. Year after year, the EU has wrung its hands while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have carried out well-documented atrocities against the civilian population in rebel-held areas of Syria.

Increasingly, Europe’s focus has been on defending its borders against desperate civilians in search of peace and a better life and keeping them out of the EU.

Now, the conflict is in its final stages, and Europe’s priority is not to raise the cost for Russia of continued military action, or to aid Turkey in creating a zone of relative safety in Idlib by deterring further assaults from Assad, or to help refugees make new lives in safe countries. It is to “hold the line,” as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said when visiting the Greek-Turkish border on March 3, 2020.

If von der Leyen really wants the EU to uphold the rules-based international order and to be “ambitious, strategic and assertive” in its approach to the world, she has to focus on removing the root cause of refugee flows, while ensuring that all EU member states comply with their obligations to asylum seekers. Europe’s policy for the wretched civilians of Syria cannot be “out of sight, out of mind.”

Caroline de GruyterEuropean Affairs Correspondent for NRC Handelsblad

Yes. In its eagerness to keep illegal migrants out, Europe makes it almost impossible for genuine refugees fleeing war and prosecution to seek asylum here. This right to seek asylum is anchored in international law.

Since immigrants have almost no legal ways to come to Europe, they have become creative and disguise as refugees. It is difficult to doublecheck their stories. Often, real refugees aren’t believed either. It has become a mess.

There is a simple way out: we must open a separate track for migrants.

First of all, we should recognize that the only way to stop illegal immigration is to legalize and regularize it. Europe needs migrants. It must open legal ways for them. We should agree on how many workers we need, which ones, and where. We should open legal application possibilities across the world. Those who obtain working visa can come by plane. As soon as legal ways exist, no one will take dangerous illegal routes across the Mediterranean or risk being beaten up by Greek or Bulgarian border guards. Smugglers will soon be out of a job. We will be in charge.

Once the track for refugees becomes unclogged, we should reinforce this, too. We must let them apply for asylum in their region, then let them come in a regular way by ferry or plane. Afterward, they should be distributed fairly over EU member states: we decide the destination.

Martin EhlChief International Editor at Hospodářské Noviny

No. Europe is finally learning its historical lesson of geopolitical change in the world and is looking at how to navigate in it.

The quarrel with Turkey is only the latest chapter where we could see lessons learned from the refugee crisis in 2015. In a world of more intense geopolitical competition and stronger hands, the EU is unable to be a savior of last resort to anybody anywhere. It should, more like the United States during the Cold War years, export its values and ideas and not import instability.

On the other hand, the EU has left Syria to its own demons and other outside powers. But the crisis in the immediate vicinity of the EU and Europe is where it should have a more active role, otherwise it will be blackmailed by countries like Turkey or Russia. They know how to play geopolitics there, having boots on the ground, for example.

Both points speak in favor of a much stronger and more determined common foreign policy, which is hard to achieve in today’s Europe. But it might be possible if such a common approach was packaged (for the voters of nationalist parties, mainly) as a way to increase the security of EU citizens.

Nicholas KaridesDirector of Ampersand Public Affairs

Yes, Europe is clearly betraying refugees. Because of failures within and outside its control.

Remember the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership? Peace and stability with Maghreb and Mashreq countries through political and security dialogue and free trade to create a zone of shared prosperity? Remember the funds that poured into strengthening democratic values and economic capacity in these countries to fend off future waves of migration?

A worthy initiative, but, crucially, it also required of the EU to invest within, in itself: to solidify foreign affairs and defense and deepen political integration. Why? To be ready for when the reasons outside its control would arrive: when Iraq, Libya, and Syria emerged as threats—especially after the United States messed them up and abandoned them—the EU was not able to engage, lacking the unity and clout to respond, succumbing to old instincts.

When the United States subprime crisis struck and contagion brought Greece to its knees, the EU saved banks not citizenry, betraying people’s faith in the union. When over ten years ago on its eastern edge a neo-Ottoman dictator began bullying his neighbors, instead of standing up to him, the EU chose to appease him, repeatedly. Europe is now betraying refugees because it first betrayed itself.

Stefan LehneVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe

Yes, absolutely! In September 2015, the EU was divided between those who wanted to give refugees shelter and those who wanted to keep them out. In March 2020, member states and EU institutions are all backing the efforts of Greece and Bulgaria to stop new arrivals.

Of course, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s cynical weaponization of refugees to extort concessions from the EU cannot be justified in any way. But neither can one overlook the fact that Turkey has taken in 3.5 million refugees and that the situation in Idlib is turning into a vast humanitarian catastrophe.

Financial assistance to Turkey for hosting the refugees on its territory must continue despite the deterioration of EU-Turkey relations. EU member states should also increase their resettlement programs for refugees in Turkey. The 25,000 that have been resettled in recent years seem embarrassingly few in light of the scale of the problem.

At the same time, the EU must urgently help (and put pressure on) Greece to improve the situation on its islands and to upgrade its asylum system. Instead of panicky warnings about a repeat of the 2015–2016 crisis, EU politicians need to focus on the concrete concerns of refugees. Otherwise, their constant rhetoric on values will lose the rest of its credibility.

Marc PieriniVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe

Greece sealing its border with Turkey and temporarily suspending the processing of asylum requests has understandably sent shockwaves through many circles in the EU.

The bigger shock, however, is what triggered this situation—that is, a small yet significant exodus of refugees deliberately organized by the Turkish authorities in order to put pressure on the EU and to divert attention from the military situation in Syria. This is the first time in this region that a Council of Europe and NATO member country takes action against a fellow member country by using refugees as pawns, busing them freely, dispatching 1,000 riot police, sending the Turkish interior minister to tour the selected area, and disseminating fake news.

Clearly, this action wasn’t going to be tolerated by Greece and the EU because of the rogue method used by an allied government.

This being said, the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement is in clear need of revision and updating. Even more importantly, the European asylum system is in need of a long-awaited modernization. What is at stake here is the future of European democracy.

Without a proper asylum system, without a clearer agreement with Turkey, and without a genuine foreign policy in critical regions such as Syria, issues such as refugee movements will continue to put pressure on politics across the European Union.

Ivan VejvodaPermanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences

It certainly seems so at the moment. There is a token effort of a minority of EU member states to take in children who are stranded. The refugees seeking a haven of peace are seen by some in Europe as “barbarians at the gates,” and the EU and national governments have reacted viscerally. The memory of the summer of 2015 lurks in the minds of leaders.

The EU is caught in a bind between the “hammer” of the obligation to live up to its proclaimed values of defending and supporting human life and dignity and the “anvil” of its domestic political environments in which the far right has been making significant inroads.

The answer is not to try and incorporate far-right, xenophobic arguments to save the mainstream political arena. The populist worldview purports that European nations are in danger of being overrun and, thus, are about to lose their soul, identity, and culture, and that the continent faces dechristianization. Leadership is lacking to counter these narratives more forcefully by putting the issue in perspective. More importantly, European-wide policies on asylum and burden sharing have been sorely missing.

Finally, the EU has been derelict in thinking it did not need to play a role in the Syrian war. It left the space open to other geopolitical actors. It is reaping the effects of its absence in the Middle East.

Astrid ZiebarthSenior Migration Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Yes, because Europe’s attitude on this file can be characterized as a snooze-button mentality.

For months, we watched the situation in Idlib deteriorate before our eyes. We have known at least since the summer of last year that new funding pledges and a revision or extension of the EU-Turkey deal were necessary to continue the support of refugees in Turkey. But all the EU did was hit the snooze button and ask for “just five more minutes” on a deal it liked and did not want to tamper with.

Now that Erdogan uses his leverage, partly blackmailing the EU, partly highlighting the plight of refugees in an economically deteriorating Turkey, the EU has reacted with beefed up border protection. Greece then decided to put its asylum procedures on hold for months. And the very moment these measures produce horrible scenes on the news, we hear the soft voice of von der Leyen kindly asking Greece to live up to its legal asylum obligations.

Even if Athens were to abide by them, this would only be a provisional band-aid attached to a bigger challenge. In reality, what is needed is a clear European strategy on how to deal with mixed migration flows, one of the trickiest new geopolitical realities we are facing. Such a policy would have to protect the rights of migrants and refugees, be practically implementable on the ground, and be sellable to domestic audiences in EU member states. Most likely, this kind of deal would not be an EU deal at all, but one between willing member states.

Von der Leyen has at least started to be honest about the huge dilemma EU countries are facing. Hard compromises and more ugly scenes on television will have to be swallowed until some workable solution emerges. But maybe von der Leyen—by hitting the wake-up button—can finally stop the shameful snoozing.