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When Europe Makes a Difference. Lessons From the Migration Crisis.

BLOG - 31 March 2020

In the midst of the information black hole created by the COVID-19 crisis, who remembers that, less than a month ago, a whole other crisis was threatening to break up the European Union? On February 28th, one  day after the Russian attack on Idlib that claimed the lives of 36 Turkish soldiers, Recep Tayyip Erdogan acted on his threat to "open the doors" of Europe to migrants. Europe, traumatized by the refugee crisis of 2015, seemed powerless against the blackmail policy of one of the "neo-authoritarians" who now control their surroundings - and ill-prepared for a crisis that was eminently foreseeable.

Three weeks later, another picture emerges, in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, but also on the basis of a stabilized balance of power. On March 17th, the video conference organised between Macron, Merkel, Johnson and Erdogan marked the renewal of a dialogue between Europe and Turkey at the highest level. The migration’s apocalypse has not taken place, and the Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, has stopped tweeting every day about the number of refugees who have fled Turkish soil. Though 140,000 departures were initially announced by Ankara, about 30,000 people are actually stuck in the border zone, trapped in a power game, and increasingly vulnerable to the progression of COVID-19.

Though 140,000 departures were initially announced by Ankara, about 30,000 people are actually stuck in the border zone, trapped in a power game, and increasingly vulnerable to the progression of COVID-19.

Why did Erdogan eventually choose to abandon the showdown on March 7th by putting an end to boat departures to the Greek islands, the real weak link on the European border? Is it the consequence of the ceasefire in Idlib concluded two days earlier with Russian president Vladimir Putin? Or is it the result of the low number of departing candidates among the 3.5 million Syrians who have already established their lives in Turkey and wish to stay as close as possible to their country in the hope of returning? In contrast to 2015, most of the refugees who rushed on the buses made available to them by the Turkish government are Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis or Iranians. As Kadri Gursel writes, Erdogan's threat of migration has now lost much of its value.

Europe’s ability to impose a balance of power and to mobilize symbolic as well as practical means, too often disjointed in EU’s external action, has allowed for the containment of this crisis. First, the symbols: by going on the ground together on March 3rd, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, Charles Michel, President of the Council, David Sassoli, President of the Parliament, and Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia, who holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, expressed in the clearest possible way EU's solidarity with Greece, a country at the forefront of the crisis. "Those who seek to test Europe's unity will be disappointed", warned Ursula von der Leyen. The very next day, symbols were followed by actions and means: the dispatch of a significant reinforcement of Frontex agents and resources, and a substantial financial assistance, with the immediate release of €350 million and the promise of an additional €350 million.

Has Europe lost its soul by rejecting, sometimes violently, thousands of migrants who were denied not only the right to enter Europe, but also the right to seek asylum, currently suspended for a month by the Greek government? The Commission and its President have made a political choice, that of considering that this crisis was not primarily humanitarian but geopolitical, and manufactured by a power seeking to destabilise the European bloc. Europe has too often been accused of strategic naivety to be denied its right to defend itself when it was so visibly attacked. And indeed, this political choice has made it possible to reaffirm essential principles to Turkey, in particular the fact that European aid would continue to be delivered directly to the Syrian refugees settled in Turkey, with the help of NGOs, without government intervention.

The real moral failure of Europe is not what is happening on the Greek-Turkish border, but the drama that continues to unfold in Idlib. This humanitarian disaster has pushed almost a million people onto the roads in the middle of winter, while Europe looked the other way. If this was Erdogan's essential message, Europeans must hear it and respond to it. The financial support for Idlib refugees announced by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on March 17th may only be deemed valuable if matched by further commitments.

The Commission and its President have made a political choice, that of considering that this crisis was not primarily humanitarian but geopolitical.

What are the lessons for the other crisis, the health crisis, which we are currently experiencing, and which constitutes a systemic shock for the construction of Europe? That Europe can make a difference when its leaders take initiatives, consult each other and dare to act politically. That they are capable of both making symbolic gestures and allocating real resources. It is also essential for Europe to have at its disposal specific tools capable of eliciting a more coordinated response as well as direct assistance to the States that need it. Such a response would surely complement, or at least compensate for, the imperfect solidarity of nations, especially in times of crisis. The example of Frontex demonstrates that the EU can equip itself with effective instruments on essential issues. The fact that populist groups in the European Parliament have always firmly refused an increase in its resources comes as no surprise: this demonstration of strength is all they dread. It is now up to Europeans to replicate this action today in order to manage the COVID-19 crisis with greater solidarity, and emerge stronger from it.

 

Copyright : Ozan KOSE / AFP

 

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