Sleepwalking in Brussels

The declaration of the West Balkan Route summit makes no sense, except as part of a larger strategy to shut refugees out of Europe

With several hundreds of thousands of refugees already on the move along the so-called ‘West Balkan Route’ to Central Europe, and thousands more arriving daily on the shores of Greece, any attempt to return to the orderly world of the Dublin regulations - whereby refugees should be registered, processed, and, most importantly, stay in the first EU country they reach - appears ambitious indeed. Or, to quote Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, only somebody “who just woke up from a months-long sleep” would imagine that the countries along the refugee trail could be made to hold the bag.

Refugees in the border area between Jamena (Serbia) and Strošinci (Croatia), late September 2015. Copyright Fotomovimento

These are nevertheless the central objectives expressed in the pre-drafted “results” that were pushed upon the participants of the EU mini-summit on the West Balkan Route in Brussels last Sunday. From fingerprinting to dispatching of police forces and boosting the EU border agency Frontex, the summit declaration is replete with the language of policing and control, and the grim determination to ignore inconvenient facts on the ground.

The heads of state assembled in Brussels are of course perfectly aware that such rhetoric, in conjunction with speculations about a definite  closure of the German border, will only serve to make the refugees speed up their trek and stiffen their resolve to dodge registration along the way, rightly fearing to be left marooned in poor and/or inhospitable countries such as Greece, Macedonia or Croatia. Neither will the prospect of emergency relocation to other EU countries for some 120,000 refugees – perhaps 15 % of the number expected by the end of the year - allay such fears. In addition, the intention to assure “swift and effective returns of migrants not in need of international protection” (judging from other sections of the declaration, this appears to target mostly nationals of Pakistan, Bangladesh and, indeed, Afghanistan) will prompt many to throw away their passports and, once caught, lie about their nationality. Assessing tens of thousands of such cases with “full respect of their dignity and human rights” would require manpower and capacities that are simply unavailable.

Thus, the 'welcome centers' for up to 100,000 refugees that are now supposed to be set up in Greece and further along the way are unlikely to become very popular with people who have every reason to evade the authorities, and to defy the exhortations of the EU bureaucrats. Rather, implementing the Brussels declaration would require coercive measures on an unprecedented and hopefully impossible scale. These would reach from the creation of large holding pens and camps for those who refuse registration or whose nationality has not been established, to the militarization of the external as well as the internal EU borders in South-East and Central Europe, and may even require the deployment of regular troops to prevent refugees from breaking out of such camps or through such borders. Inevitably, the implementation of such policies would generate the same appalling scenes which led to the breakdown of the EU refugee regime over the summer, if not much worse.

So was the Brussels meeting pure actionism, a procession of sleepwalkers refusing to wake up while pretending to be in charge? Or a charade enacted to help Angela Merkel sell her line to a reluctant German public and her own, partly xenophobic party? Did the assembled Balkan leaders agree to a declaration that some of them had scoffed at only hours before because they expect that while the implementation will surely fail, the EU may pay out significant monies for them to pretend to make it work?

Most probably, the answer is: all of the above. Yet the summit declaration also clearly shows that beyond controlling and policing those who are already here, the strategic goal of the EU remains to prevent more refugees from reaching European soil in the first place. Accommodating Turkey is a key condition for this strategy, as the country offers visa free entry for Syrians fleeing the civil war, which by now account for a staggering twelve million people between refugees and internally displaced (two million are already residing there). Thus far, Ankara has shown little enthusiasm to prevent refugees from crossing over to the Greek Islands just off its coast. Yet instead of criticizing Turkey in similar terms as the Balkan states, the Brussels declaration echoes EU leaders who now scramble to reactivate the EU-Turkey action plan, speed up the roadmap for visa-free travel and turn a blind eye on the deteriorating human rights record - all to recruit Ankara as a bouncer at the gates of Europe.

Meanwhile, some headway has been made to address Libya, the second gaping hole in the rim of pliant client governments ringing the southern Mediterranean, by obtaining a Security Council resolution that allows the use of force to intercept vessels suspected of ‘smuggling’ refugees off its coast. Key European countries also played a major role in restoring a functioning government in Libya, and will hence wield lasting influence if the process succeeds, perhaps even allowing for military operations in territorial waters and on the coast. In the (more likely) event that reconciliation fails and civil war erupts again, general lawlessness may allow for other measures, and may make the country too dangerous for all but the most desperate among the refugees.

Further afield, the EU has continued to forge ahead with its larger “externalization agenda”. Shrouded in the discourse of protection and anti-trafficking, the ultimate objective is clearly to subcontract the handling of migration as far away as possible. In the past, this often happened with insufficient regard to the methods and track record of such ‘partners’ (among them a certain Muammar Al-Ghaddafi). Since November 2014, the EU has been pushing the so-called “Khartoum process” which is supposed to entrust migration management to notorious human rights violators like Sudan and Eritrea.

However, once such abuse happens somewhere in Africa, it can be safely ignored, or attributed to ‘uncivilized’ societies, to which the humanitarian virtue of white Europeans compares favorably. As the past weeks have shown, many Western Europeans relish performing the same exercise with the EU members south and east of the Danube, who harass the refugees on their behalf. Yet the bureaucrats in Brussels are well aware that turning the Western Balkans into a dumping ground for refugees will have dangerous consequences. They may be sleepwalking, but it is clear where they are going. The declaration they pushed through on October 25 only makes sense when the gates of Europe are slammed shut.

Heiko Wimmen

Heiko Wimmen is a researcher with the Middle East and Africa Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs / Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin. He spent most of the past two decades in the Middle East working in journalism, civil society support and as a political analyst, and currently resides in Cairo. His research interests focus on Lebanon, Syria and political mobilization in divided societies in the Middle East and South East Europe. 

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