Monday

22nd Apr 2019

Opinion

Has the EU stopped lying to itself on refugees?

  • The decision to close Western Balkans borders was a decision to save Schengen (Photo: Freedom House)

"Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all other possibilities" is a famous quote, versions of which have been attributed to Winston Churchill.

It might now be the turn of European Union member countries to do the right thing in the refugee and migrant crisis. Finally. Myriad mistakes from the past might, however, still lead to a sad outcome, where those who genuinely need help will not get it: real refugees.

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  • The best way to avoid perilous crossings is by taking control of the crisis, not by letting Greece keep breaking EU law (Photo: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov)

The first thing that EU countries must do is to stop lying to each other over refugees. The declared closure of the so-called Balkan route for migrants heading to northern Europe is a long overdue step. It is the sign of a profound change in consensus.

The bottom line is that the whole EU now seems to be adopting an approach that the Central European countries have been pushing for since the beginning of this crisis.

Those countries are still vilified in Western European media. However, many Western diplomats and policymakers now acknowledge tacitly, that they were right after all. The EU as a whole seems to be realising the need to follow some basic rules.

Firstly, to say that the Balkan route should not be closed, as Germany’s Angela Merkel is advocating, means to deliberately ignore those rules.

Without the closure, this crisis cannot be managed. It is symptomatic that everyone professes his or her outrage about the fate of migrants stranded at the Greek-Macedonian border, but no one seems to be dismayed by the fact that Greece still does not have enough facilities for those people.

Fooled by Greece

Last October, the Greeks promised to build 50,000 places by the end of 2015 to house migrants and refugees. Where are those places?

The plight of people stranded in Greece is tragic, no doubt about it, but without the closure of the border, the Greeks will never cease their illegal practice of waving refugees through to other countries.

If this continues, Schengen is dead. And we should not be fooled by Greece’s claims that it cannot handle this crisis on its own. Until now, the Greeks have, compared to the Germans, the Austrians or the Swedes, paid little for this crisis since they have simply sent all the refugees and migrants north.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras says that his country should not become “a warehouse of souls” and he is right. To achieve this, the EU needs an agreement with Turkey at almost any cost.

Turkey, of course, knows this and uses this advantageous position to the maximum. But does anyone have a better idea how to stop thousands of people, less than half of whom are Syrians, coming to Europe by boat and paying a fortune to smugglers than by doing a deal with Turkey?

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a dangerous turn towards authoritarianism, no doubt about it. But if anyone wants to, while sorting out this mess, deal only with genuine democrats, good luck finding them.

Central Europe has won

To sum up, what is the new approach of EU member states?

To limit, preferably to zero, the number of people who arrive from Turkey to Greece. To return almost all those who make the journey to Turkey, even in case of Syrians. To preclude any secondary movement from frontline countries further into Europe.

Is all this closer to the position of Germany and the European Commission from last summer or to what the Czechs, the Hungarians or the Slovaks were saying at that time? In this respect, Central Europe has won.

There is a danger, however, that one crucial aspect of the deal with Turkey might become impossible to implement (apart from visa free travel for Turks), namely a plan to resettle refugees directly from Turkey to Europe, thus destroying the business of smugglers.

Central European countries, and not only them, might refuse to take part, although the Czech Republic, for example, was one of those member states that preferred resettlement from Turkey to relocation from Greece and Italy.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of xenophobia in Central Europe and that politicians like Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, while being right in many aspects, are dangerous populists playing on fear.

But one can hardly deny the fact that the original foolish approach to the crisis, pushed for by Germany and the European Commission, has set EU countries against one another and has contributed to the breakdown in mutual trust.

Genuine refugees might be the victims of avoidable mistakes that the EU committed at the beginning of the crisis.

Ondrej Houska ( @OndrejHouska on Twitter) is Brussels correspondent for Czech public radio

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