A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Eyes Wide Shut

The EU's deficient foreign policy is to blame in part for the current refugees crises. But few in Berlin or elsewhere acknowledge this.

Today’s huge influx of refugees into Europe is a consequence of the EU’s appalling weakness in foreign and security policy. Yet in Germany – the country attracting the most refugees – this aspect plays no role in the public discourse. Germans are closing their eyes to the consequences of political inaction.

© REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

© REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

These days, refugees are ubiquitous in German media. Pick up any newspaper, switch on any news broadcast – most likely there will be some story about the tens of thousands of refugees arriving monthly.

How are refugees being housed and treated? Who pays? Are refugees allowed to work? What about the increasing number of deeply worrying arson attacks on refugee homes? Given the volume of refugees arriving in Germany, these have all become hot issues.

June of 2015 was the busiest month ever, with 32,700 people requested political asylum in Germany. The total this year may exceed 400,000 – a huge challenge to public authorities and the strained housing infrastructure.

Naturally, the debate also has a European dimension, which focuses on two issues: First, now that thousands of refugees have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, will the EU finally do enough to prevent further tragedies? Second, EU countries have proven unable to agree any new mechanism to share the burden of taking in refugees.

“It is shameful for Europe that we are not able to ensure a better distribution of refugees,” the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel, recently said. He added that Germany, Sweden, and Austria, amongst others, take in the most refugees, while some member states admit only tiny numbers.

Yet however passionately politicians, experts, NGOs, and citizens debate all of these questions, there is one aspect that is curiously absent: Could Europe, through diplomacy, trade, and/or military means, have done more to prevent the situations from deteriorating so badly that people choose to flee their homes in the first place?

Arguably, over the past decade the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy has mostly failed to prevent wars or repression and alleviate the grinding poverty in Europe’s wider neighborhood. Faced with public unwillingness nearly everywhere in Europe, the EU has hesitated to fill the vacuum left by the United States’ pivot towards Asia.

A Muddled Response to the Arab Spring

There are at least three different cases in which wiser policy might have prevented much of today’s refugee crisis:

First, there are the countries of the 2011 Arab Spring, whose pro-democracy movements were met with a decidedly muddled response from Europe. Take Libya for example: In 2011, France and Britain, in league with the United States but against the will of European countries like Germany, intervened to topple Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime providing the rebels with air support. Yet they were unwilling to stay around to help rebuild the country. Libya has become a failed state, torn between rival militia. Now a safe haven for smugglers, the country is the main throughway for refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean.

War-ravaged Syria is another example of Europe’s failure to act in a united fashion. After four years of an increasingly brutal and chaotic civil war, EU countries can’t even agree whether they should be shipping arms to any of the warring parties, let alone to whom specifically. Four million Syrians have fled their home country with most of them finding shelter in Turkey or Jordan. But their numbers are rising in Europe, too. In the first half of 2015, one out of five refugees seeking political asylum in Germany came from Syria, topping the list of countries of origin.

Second, there are the countries where Europeans and Americans actually attempted – and failed – to build proper state institutions. Western powers occupied Afghanistan for 13 years and invested billions into state-building and infrastructure. Yet Afghanistan still accounts for five percent of refugees seeking asylum in Germany, with Iraq adding another 5.2 percent. (See “Lessons from Afghanistan” from our July/August 2015 issue.)

Failure on the Balkans

Europe’s failure to create stable and prosperous conditions in the Balkans is even more embarrassing, as European soldiers have been engaged in the region for more than twenty years. After Syria, Kosovo is the most significant country of origin for refugees coming to Germany – a country still patrolled by nearly 5,000 soldiers under NATO command. Since the Kosovo war of 1999, the EU has spent €2 billion to build a viable state in Kosovo. Despite this, people still leave in droves to find a better life elsewhere.

Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia also provide a sizeable number of the refugees seeking shelter in Germany. These countries hope to be admitted to the European Union, yet the EU has been unable to encourage the kind of reforms that would make people believe they have a future in the Balkans.

Finally, there are countries like Eritrea, which contributed nearly 4000 refugees in the first half of 2015. This small, sparsely populated, and dreadfully poor African country has one of world’s most repressive regimes. Here, the European Union has little direct influence. But surely it could have used trade policy and humanitarian aid to alleviate people’s lives to some extent.

Each of these cases is different; in each case one wonders what a more active, united, and wiser European Union might have achieved. In any one country, Europe, even with the best of intentions, might have failed at securing peace and stability. But taking all these examples into account, Europe’s failure is more than just bad luck.

The reason is a deep and pervasive reluctance to get engaged. Many Germans – and other Europeans – simply do not want to get involved, especially not in any venture that might require military action. They dream of Europe becoming a large Switzerland – an island of prosperity that escapes all risk and responsibility for the wider world.

Europe, however, is too big to abdicate its responsibilities. The refugee crisis is a painful reminder that shutting your eyes carries a price.