Thursday

20th Sep 2018

Opinion

Don't fence me in

  • "The four-metre high wall will have a profound psychological effect" (Photo: Pulpolux)

Good fences make good neighbours, they say.

But Hungary’s plan to seal off its border with Serbia by building a 175km-long wall, revealed on Wednesday (17 June), is a step in the opposite direction.

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The idea did not play well in Brussels, where Natasha Bertaud, speaking for the European Commission, was quick to point out the EC does not encourage such projects. “We have only recently taken down walls in Europe; we should not be putting them up”, she told journalists on Thursday.

Criticism also came from Strasbourg and Geneva. Nils Muizniaks, the Council of Europe’s commisioner for human rights called the plan “ill-advised”. The UNHCR, the UN’s chief refugee agency, also voiced concern.

Unsurprisingly, Belgrade was even less amused.

Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic said he’s “shocked and surprised”. He announced he’ll try to persuade Viktor Orban, his Hungarian counterpart, to reverse the decision. “We don’t want to live in Auschwitz”, he said.

Hungarians retorted the wall isn’t meant to keep out Serbs, but illegal migrants, mostly Syrians and Kosovo Albanians, some 50,000 of which crossed over the “green border” with Hungary this year. “We’re not closing the border passes. Serbian citizens with valid passports are still welcome ”, Hungarian MEP Andor Deli (EPP) told Serbian TV.

It didn’t help much.

Although Vucic’s reference to Auschwitz may seem over the top, Serbs have good reasons to be sensitive about freedom of movement.

During the civil war in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbia was subject to UN sanctions, and obtaining a visa for Western European countries was next to impossible for most of its citizens.

This situation didn’t change even after 2000, when president Slobodan Milosevic was toppled and replaced by a pro-Western government: the Schengen rules applied. Serbian citizens had to go through lengthy, expensive, and humiliating visa application processes, which often ended in rejection.

In 2008, the EU relaxed the visa regime for Serbia and other Western Balkan states. But for many, the memory of feeling trapped in one’s own country is still fresh.

Even with the border posts open, the four-metre high wall will have a profound psychological effect.

Paradox

Paradoxically, Hungary announced its plan at a time when Hungary-Serbia relations, after years of bickering about the status of the Hungarian minority in Serbia, just took a turn for the better.

Not only does Vucic boast close personal ties with Orban, the two governments recently agreed on periodical joint cabinet meetings. The next session, scheduled for 1 July, is likely to take place in an icy atmosphere.

Another paradox, which Vucic was quick to point out, is that most immigrants enter Serbia through Greece, Bulgaria, or Macedonia, two of which are EU member states.

He said that Serbia does not intend to build its own wall on the Macedonian or Bulgarian border. But the pressure to stop the flow of refugees through Serbia is mounting, both from inside and outside the country.

There are also reasons to be wary of what might happen if the wall is erected, and it does serve its purpose (most experts believe it will not).

The migrants would likely turn to the nearest green border, the one Serbia shares with Croatia. If the Croats decide to follow Hungary’s example, Serbia would find itself surrounded by razor wire.

This would also have a devastating effect on Serbo-Croatian relations, already stretched thin because, among other issues, of a border dispute over a stretch of land along the Danube river.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is squeezed between Serbia and Croatia, would be first to suffer consequences.

Fortress

As the commission’s Bertaud explained, the EU does not have legal ways to prevent Hungary, or any other member state, to regulate borders with non-members as it sees fit.

Bulgaria is also building a wall on its border with Turkey. Greece has had one for some time.

If the EU allows this worrying trend to continue, it risks not only destabilising the Western Balkans, but also making the grim metaphor of “Fortress Europe” a starkly visible reality.

Dejan Anastasijevic is an award-winning Serb journalist, currently with the Tanjug news agency

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