Cynically exploiting EU’s divisions

Published in (Wellington), 16 November 2021

In the past year, the 26 members of the European Defence Agency (EDA) have spent €186 billion on their militaries.

But what is all that spending worth when even a few thousand refugees camping out in Belarus reveal how fragile and vulnerable Europe’s external borders are?

After simmering for many months, the Belarusian-organised refugee crisis is heating up in the Eastern European cold.

In August, I wrote about how the “last dictator of Europe,” Alexander Lukashenko, threatened Lithuania with a wave of refugees (European Dictator’s cynical game, 11 August 2021).

Lukashenko has since shifted his attention from Lithuania to Poland. While doing so, he enlisted the aid of another long-time foe of the European Union, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The two authoritarian leaders delighted in their tried-and-tested method of inflicting a blow on the EU’s security with minimal risk and effort.

The way it worked was a matter of two evil minds thinking alike. Turkey played a crucial role in Europe’s great refugee crisis of 2015, when more than a million migrants made their way into the EU. Initially, it helped refugees cross into Greece. It then stopped the exodus after receiving payments from Brussels.

Back then, Erdoğan learned how easily the EU could be blackmailed with refugees. After that, he kept pondering publicly whether to open the floodgates again. The threat to the EU was considerable.

Lukashenko took inspiration from Erdoğan’s playbook. In response to intense international pressure and after his manipulated re-election in 2020, he not only utilised Erdoğan’s refugee idea as a weapon. He even cooperated with Turkey by flying them in via Istanbul, on Turkish Airlines.

Well, at least that practice has stopped now. Middle Eastern citizens were banned from flying to Belarus from Turkish airports by the Erdoğan regime on Friday.

The Turkish government thus showed how deeply involved it had been in people trafficking, despite claiming it had nothing to do with the Belarusian refugee crisis. The decision followed pressure from the EU Commission in Brussels, which could lead to speculation about how much the EU might have paid Turkey this time.

Still, Erdoğan will watch with glee as his Belarusian counterpart once again exposes the weakness of the EU. And because the spotlight is now on Poland, the politics have also escalated from the beginning of the crisis. It is all even more complicated now.

The Poles’ historical trauma is the security of their borders. Poland is understandably nervous about Belarus testing its defences to its east. Many observers suspect Russia’s Vladimir Putin is behind the provocation.

So not surprisingly, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is thinking of calling a NATO meeting to declare the refugee crisis an assault on his country’s territorial integrity – just one step short of calling for collective defence.

But would triggering the substantial military machinery of NATO and the European Defence Agency be the appropriate way of dealing with the Belarusian provocation?

It is not a traditional defence case. There are no soldiers involved in crossing over into foreign territory. This is not a repeat of Crimea, where Russian troops invaded and took over.

The refugees trying to cross the Belarus-Poland border are not even planning to stay in Poland. Their final destinations are more likely to be countries like Germany and Sweden, which took most refugees in 2015.

It is therefore not a test of Poland’s territorial integrity, at least not in the military sense, although it may feel that way to many Poles. In reality, what is happening is a test of the EU’s refugee policy. There are many ways it can fail, and virtually no way in which it will succeed.

There is no way that the EU can close its external borders and ignore the plight of those desperate refugees now suffering in the cold. That would make a mockery of the EU’s often proclaimed values. The situation would be another humanitarian catastrophe on European soil, much like the dreadful conditions in Greek refugee camps (Rocks and hard places in EU refugee policy, 23 September 2020).

To live up to its values, the EU would have to accept a few thousand refugees and then redistribute them among its members. But it cannot do that either.

There is no political consensus between EU members about accepting such large numbers of refugees. Countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Austria would rebel against it.

Even if the EU declared the refugees’ entry as a one-time event and then sealed its borders, what would prevent Belarus from flying in more refugees? On his territory, Lukashenko can create as many humanitarian disasters as he likes. Would the EU have to give in to moral pressure each time?

Only one thing is certain in the current crisis: the EU must stay united. To drive it apart would only serve Lukashenko, Erdoğan and Putin’s interests.

Providing Poland with border defence support is therefore a first step in uniting the EU – no matter how hostile Poland regularly behaves towards Brussels. And no matter how little such defence support really achieves.

Beyond that, the EU has few good options. As long as its internal position on the refugee question is not agreed, it will always be vulnerable to external pressure and blackmail.

And that is what it comes down to: a political, not a military question.

Which, sadly, makes it a lot harder to answer.

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