24th Mar 2018


'The Europe we wished for'

  • The EU behaves as if it were at the mercy of president Erdogan (c) (Photo: Consillium)

That the recent migration crisis is destroying the EU’s image and many of its achievements has become a widely held view within and outside Europe.

This is having an effect in multiple ways: by gradually undermining the Schengen regime, one of the fundamental freedoms of Europe, and by challenging Europe’s identity and endangering the whole European experiment through privileging national identity over the European one.

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Fundamentally, however, the refugee crisis has been a test of European values, and whether the EU can live up to the human rights goals and principles it has been advocating.

One pressing question that academics face now is whether it is still a legitimate subject of inquiry to study the nitty-gritty details of the EU’s human rights advocacy when the EU’s image as a champion of human rights has been so badly tarnished by the refugee crisis.

As Angela Merkel warned last September: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees – if the close link with universal civil rights is broken – then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”

Deal gone bad

One might easily get the impression that the EU took a cynical approach towards Turkey by re-energising the EU accession process as part of the deal on the refugee crisis at the same time as Turkey was cracking down on media freedom, on the Kurdish minority in its south-east, and briefly detaining 27 academics protesting against its Kurdish policy.

Many question the sincerity of the membership offer and would maintain that the EU has betrayed its liberal values, yet it is harder to dispute that the EU needs Turkey for an effective handling of the refugee crisis.

While the deal with the EU was meant to serve the dual purpose of improving the lot of refugees in Turkey and stopping them from continuing their journey to the EU, so far Turkish authorities seem to have concentrated on halting migration by all means, probably assuming this would satisfy the EU eager to stop the refugee flow.

While trying to meet its pledges last November, the Turkish government ended its open-door policy and closed its borders for those travelling from Syria over land, and in January 2016 introduced visa requirement for Syrians coming from third countries.

Amnesty International reported that hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers were sent back to Syria and Iraq in a clear violation of the non-refoulement principle of international refugee law.

Deepening distrust

Rosa Balfour, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, emphasised during discussions at the FRAME workshop at ELTE University in Budapest in January that the migration crisis and the Kurdish situation must be addressed through a human rights lens.

She said these situations would otherwise offer breeding grounds for radicalisation and terrorism, which carry the risk of exploding on Europe’s doorstep.

The EU behaves as if it were at the mercy of president Erdogan, while Turkey in reality is in a fragile position. Its relations have broken down with Israel, Egypt, Syria as well as Russia, and the conflict has spilled into Turkey itself.

Turkey needs the EU as much as the EU needs Turkey, so the EU should pay at least as much attention to protecting the rights of refugees as to the security of borders, if not out of moral concerns then because this is what its security interests also demand.

Ironically, the credibility of Turkey's potential EU membership started to decrease after membership talks were officially opened in 2005, when reforms and the accession process both slowed down. The EU cannot afford to fool Turkey again, as it might just further deepen its distrust of the EU.

EU 'still the gold standard'

Jan Wouters, professor of the University of Leuven, told the FRAME workshop that the context of the current refugee crisis should be widened because migratory flows would continue beyond the present Syrian context, primarily from Sub-Saharan Africa, and will most likely intensify.

The EU not only needs to think about how to positively engage with its partners such as the African Union, but also take the lead in a major revision of the current international framework of migration governance, as there is effectively no framework of international cooperation between states to manage refugee flows.

The legal definition of refugees also needs to accommodate those fleeing because of climate change, whose number has climbed up to 24.3 million a year since 2008.

Even though the European Commission recently drew attention to this problem as potentially “the greatest single impact of climate change”, this issue was not addressed during the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Paris.

In the words of Rosa Balfour, the EU still remains the gold standard for human rights probably by default rather than by desire, despite all of its failures, because it is at the highest level of norm implementation and sovereignty reduction in the world.

If the EU cannot recover from the current crisis, this may well have far-reaching implications for global institutions and governance.

Beata Huszka is assistant professor at ELTE University's Institute of Political and International Studies in Budapest.

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