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Europe Must Uphold Its Values Amidst New Refugee Crisis – OpEd

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By Cornelia Meyer*

The refugee crisis, which proved divisive for Europe in 2015-2016, is back with a vengeance — and Europe is no closer to a consensus on the matter now than it was then. Worse, many leaders seem unmoved by the humanitarian chaos unfolding on the border between Tukey and Greece; or at least unwilling to act according to the lofty human rights principles the EU espouses.

It all started in Idlib, which the Assad regime and Russia are eager to control, while Turkey wants to establish a safe zone to protect its border. For Bashar Assad, Idlib is the last step in the fight to regain power over Syria. He is supported by Russia and the fears of many have materialized, because the situation has led to direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, which, in spite of being a member of NATO, has friendly relations with Moscow.

When 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to play the refugee card with his European neighbors. Turkey hosts between 3.6 and 4 million refugees, depending on the source. There are close to another million displaced people in Idlib marching toward the Turkish border. Many of them have been chased out of their homes and temporary accommodation multiple times by the war raging in Syria. 

The EU was spooked when news came out of Turkey that the border with Greece would be opened. In 2015, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement that Ankara would seal its borders in exchange for €6 billion ($6.7 billion). For various reasons, only €3 billion has so far reached Turkish aid organizations. Erdogan has been pushing for some time to have the remainder transferred directly into the state’s coffers. His requests have fallen on deaf ears in Brussels.

Idlib has now brought the situation to a head once again. The EU has not used the hiatus of the last five years to revisit the Dublin Regulation (the convention relating to the status of refugees). Dublin III dates from 2013 and states that refugees have to be granted asylum in the country in which they are first registered. This puts inordinate pressure on Greece and other Mediterranean nations such as Italy and Spain, all of which do not have strong economies and have to contend with extraordinarily high youth unemployment, even without refugees. 

European solidarity would, in theory, necessitate an allocation mechanism among EU member states and beyond. Alas, it seems impossible to find consensus in Brussels. On one side there is the Visegrad Group of states, consisting of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, whose governments are hard-liners as far as refugees are concerned. On the other side, there are countries like Denmark and Germany, which are far more liberal. There too, however, some members of the governing coalitions or opposition parties are much more hard-line than the head of government. For example, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer advocated stronger border controls within the EU as long as the outer borders constituted a problem. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was the architect of Germany accommodating close to a million refugees in 2015/2016, remained silent on this subject. She did, however, advocate urgent consultations with Erdogan in order to revive the EU’s deal with Turkey.

All of the above leaves the Mediterranean states, particularly Greece, in the lurch. On Tuesday, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went to Greece for consultations with the country’s prime minister. She flew over the 200-kilometer Greek-Turkish border from a safe distance and vowed solidarity. The EU’s Frontex border force is set to beef up its presence there.

However, this measure is merely cosmetic in nature. What is really needed is a Europe-wide allocation mechanism for refugees. It needs to include non-EU member states, such as the UK, Norway and Switzerland. An agreement should be everybody’s aim, because it is in nobody’s interest to leave the economies on the EU’s periphery unable to cope. Alas, it will be very difficult to convince these varied democracies to march in the same direction on an issue that is unpopular among vast parts of their populations. Von der Leyen has her work cut out.

The human suffering unfolding on the Turkish-Greek border is horrendous. There are reports that Greek border forces fired live ammunition in the direction of destitute refugees. Athens has suspended awarding refugee status to anyone for a month, vowing to return everybody who crossed the border back to Turkey. It is heartbreaking to see women, children and old people sleep on wet floors and without shelter in temperatures nearing zero degrees Celsius.

Europe urgently needs to find a way forward in the face of this new refugee crisis. It also needs to kick-start a conversation with Turkey, whether the powers that be like it or not. This is about much more than an allocation mechanism for refugees: It is about the heart and soul of Europe’s values, consisting of democracy, solidarity, social equity and human rights. The EU and other European countries are vociferous about these values and very quick to criticize any government that is perceived to be lacking in them. It is high time to start walking the talk.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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