Some politicians, including German social democrats, have backed the need to cooperate with Russia and perhaps even the Syrian regime.
The most efficient way to solve the refugee crisis would be by ending conflicts in Syria and Iraq and stabilizing the situation in Libya. As migrant flows to the European Union do not seem to be abating, some European politicians are intent to resort to measures like cooperation with Russia, Syria and other authoritarian regimes. Still, whatever the reason behind the Russian president launching military action in Syria – whether to trade the “anti-terrorist coalition” initiative for the US and EU backing down on the Ukraine issue or, the opposite, to find a way out of Ukraine preserving the face in the eyes of the Russian public – this will not help solve the refugee crisis in Europe.
The goals that the Russian leadership has in Syria differ from those of the US and the EU, which relates back to one of the key reasons of the refugee crisis, the regime of Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad. The Russian president’s statements, the sites where he deploys his munitions and the military action launched this week suggest that his main goal is not defeating terrorists but rather preserving the regime that governs (parts of) Syria, thus preserving Russia’s own influence in the region.
But it was Assad’s weapons used against the civilian population that displaced many people within Syria and forced them to flee to Turkey, other countries and, recently, to the EU. One fifth of all refugees coming to the EU are from Syria.
This means that push factors, forcing people out of their homes in Syria, will only grow stronger in the nearest future. Failing to find ways to eliminate the causes of the refugee crisis, EU nations will continue to try to manage the situation within the EU and at its borders. The EU and its leaders spent much time discussing how to redistribute the incoming refugees and, eventually, made some decisions in the Council last week, not to everyone’s satisfaction. To be more precise, they agreed on distributing 160 thousand refugees, although in fact over 500 thousand arrived in Europe this year alone.
Now they have refocused on more effective ways of protecting the EU’s external borders, implementing asylum laws and better financing refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, West Balkans. The European Commission and EU governments are working on practical proposals to be discussed at a summit in mid-October. True, many of these proposals have already been put forward by the European Commission last spring. Unfortunately, due to initial reluctance from some EU countries, including Lithuania, to address these issues, probably to do with their failure to appreciate their potential extent, crisis management efforts are long overdue.
Recent measures approved by the EU and member-states to more efficiently manage migrant inflows – stopping some of them even before arriving in Europe, providing better conditions for them to stay in Turkey and other neighbouring countries – are sensible. But implementing them in practise will be a big challenge. Their effectiveness will depend on how well national institutions are able to cooperate with the European Commission and agencies like Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office or Europol.
Although asylum for migrants from third countries and related issues have become a common EU concern, regulated by EU rules, member states and national institutions retain significant powers in controlling borders and dealing with migration and asylum issues. So it is down to member states how effective these measures will prove to be.
So far, however, institutions in some EU states were either incapable or unwilling to effectively control external borders, properly register refugees and accommodate them. The Hungarian government initially tried to stick to EU rules and was registering refugees, but as flows continued to grow, policies changed. Politicians in other countries, including Germany, have been very inconsistent, too. This inconsistency of individual countries is what endangered the Schengen Area. So the efficiency of national institutions and their coordination will be a crucial factor in managing the crisis.
This will undoubtedly be influenced by each country’s domestic politics, as accepting refugees is becoming an important topic in political debates. This is evident in Poland, which is getting ready for general elections. The refugee issue touches upon themes like identity, cultural and racial difference – which readily excites people’s emotions, from compassion and charity to suspicion and fear. Reacting to these emotions, politicians usually do not bother to discuss the causes of the problem, possible solutions and potential consequences – they prefer to articulate attractively simplistic choices, for example, between patriotism and globalism. Moreover, benefits for refugees is another emotional topic, as many fear there will be abuses of welfare systems in EU countries. This touches upon another important factor in managing the crisis – financial resources.
When it comes to funds in the EU and national budgets for the refugee crisis, what’s important is not just the size, but also their adequacy to the problem, political possibilities to dedicate the funds and – just as importantly – use them well.
EU leaders have decided to give additional one billion euros to UN programmes administering food and assistance to refugees in neighbouring countries. However, according to some estimates, the UN is still short 8 billion euros just to be able to help refugees from Syria who have been displaced in neighbouring countries. Although the European Commission has detailed suggestions on EUR 1.7bn for the refugee crisis, the sum is intended to cover a period of two years; Germany alone will spend EUR 2bn from its budget this year on refugees and the same sum is envisaged in 2016. Demand for funding is constantly growing and the amounts set aside by the EU will soon be too small.
By the way, compared to what the EU spends on supporting agriculture – some EUR 58bn a year – funding for the refugee crisis is meagre. It is expected that all EU countries will find some money in their own budgets, but these will be politically complex decisions. Over the last few years, most EU countries cut their spending on humanitarian aid. Moreover, EU economies are still recovering from the recent financial crisis, while possibilities to raise spending are restricted by the need to reduce fiscal deficits. As Lithuania is about to start discussing the budget for 2016, which is also an election year, support for refugees will inescapably come up.
In the nearest future, the EU will not be able to eliminate the causes of the refugee crisis and it is yet to be seen how it can handle its consequences. In order to get the crisis under control, we will need political leadership and resolute action, efficient coordination, adequate funding, open public communication and strategic patience. A combination that is near-impossible.
Prof. Ramūnas Vilpišauskas is director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.