Post originally appeared on The Automatic Earth.
On the day after a bunch of European countries headed into yet another -emergency- meeting, and as the refugee situation in Greece and the Balkans was more out of hand than ever before, not in the least because the numbers of refugees arriving from -in particular- Turkey are larger than ever, let’s reiterate what should always be the guiding principle driving the response to issues like this.
That is, the only way to approach a crisis such as this one is to put the people first. To say that whatever happens, we will do what we can, first and foremost, to not allow for people to drown, or go hungry or cold, or contract diseases. Because that contradicts our basic morals. The loss of lives and prevention of misery should be the most important thing for everyone involved, all the time, from politicians to citizens.
If we cannot approach both the issue and the people with decency and humanity, we are as lost as they are. If only because we have no claim to being treated better than we ourselves treat others. After all, if someone else’s life is neither sacred nor valuable, why should yours be?
Looking through the response across Europe to the growing numbers and the growing crisis, what’s remarkable is the difference between individual citizens and the governments that are supposed to represent them. Apart from outliers like Hungary PM Victor Urban and the ubiquitous fascist groups from Greece through Germany, citizens win hands-down and across the board when it comes to humanity.
The arguably worst record is set by the European Union, ironically the one body that claims to represent everyone in the 500 million strong continent. Individual politicians in leading nations like Germany, France and the UK are close behind. European ‘leaders’ are not looking for a European solution, they’re all only trying to deal with their own part of the problem. As long as the refugees don’t burden their nations, they’re satisfied.
After a year of increasing refugee arrivals it’s safe to say that the pan-European approach, to the extent that it can even be said to exist, is a dismal and deadly failure.
Yesterday’s ‘Balkan+’ mini-summit was no exception. The AP headline says it all: “EU Agrees To Tighten Border Controls And Slow Migrant Arrival”. Europe’s priority is not to fight or minimize the suffering, it’s to make the problems go away by making the people go away. The new deal that came out of the summit cannot possibly work because it is based on unrealistic predictions of stopping the flow of refugees.
Greece has agreed to ‘host’ 50,000 refugees, but with 10,000 arriving daily that is a meaningless number. Apart from that, this is supposed to take place in ‘holding camps’, and the term all by itself should make one shiver. The ‘hotspots’, another EU initiative, are already making the refugee situation even worse than they have been for months.
Moreover, these people don’t want to stay in Greece, because in Greece economic prospects are so bleak as to be non-existent for the simple reason that the EU itself has demolished the Greek economy. Those responsible for that demolition now seek to force Greece to keep refugees from traveling north in holding camps and severely undermanned fingerprint facilities.
Disgrace comes in spades. It was therefore good to see that Greece had the pretty perfect answer:
Greece’s migration minister has rejected accusations by Germany and other European countries that Greece is failing to defend its borders against mass migration, insisting that the refugees and other migrants trekking to Europe constitute a humanitarian crisis, not a defense threat. “Greece can guard its borders perfectly and has been doing so for thousands of years, but against its enemies. The refugees are not our enemies,”Yiannis Mouzalas said in an interview.
Greece is under pressure from other European governments to use its coast guard and navy to control the huge influx of migrants who are making their way, via the Aegean Sea and Greece’s territory, from the Middle East to Northern Europe, especially Germany. [..] leaders from Greece and other countries on the latest migration route through the Balkans are facing allegations from Germany, Hungary and others that they are passively allowing migrants to pass through.
“In practice what lies behind the accusation is the desire to repel the migrants,” said Mr. Mouzalas. “Our job when they are in our territorial sea is to rescue them, not [let them] drown or repel them.”
Last week alone, Greece received about 48,000 migrants and refugees on its shores, the highest number of weekly arrivals this year, the International Organization for Migration said Friday.
Athens opposes an idea floated by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to set up joint Turkish-Greek border patrols. Greece and Turkey have long-standing disputes over their territorial waters, which have led to military tension over the years.
“This was an unfortunate statement by Mr. Juncker,” Mr. Mouzalas said. “The joint patrols have never been on the table. They have no point anyway, as they wouldn’t help ease the situation.”
Mr. Mouzalas said Turkey should have been invited to Sunday’s summit.“Turkey is the door and Greece is the corridor; Europe should not treat Greece as the door..”
But count on Brussels and Berlin to issue Athens with more threats. It worked over the summer, so… Still, Europe as a whole, the 28 nations that make up the EU, can and will not agree on the entire issue and all its aspects. And that is why Yanis Varoufakis is wrong in his approach, and his call to Britain (which he shares with Xi Jinping of all people) and the rest of Europe:
Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, has called on Britons to vote to remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum. The bête noire of the European political elite was speaking at a Guardian Live event at Central Hall in Westminster, central London, on Friday night. He said: “You have a referendum coming up. My message is simple yet rich: those of us who disdain the democratic deficit in Brussels, those of us who detest the authoritarianism of a technocracy which is incompetent and contemptuous of democracy, those of us who are most critical of Europe have a moral duty to stay in Europe, fight for it, and democratise it.”
Yanis is wrong because the EU is not a democratic institution, and can therefore not be “democratized”. It’s a pipedream gone horribly awry. It should be exorcised. And even if “democratization” were possible in theory, before you can reform the EU, you’re 10-20 years or more down the road. And there’s no such time available. The problems exist in the presence, not just in the future.
The EU is a loose collection of separate sovereign nations that came together in times of plenty. These nations will always, when pressured, seek their own advantages, never that of the collective if it means a disadvantage for themselves. The whole idea behind the union has been, from the start, that of a tide that lifts all boats. And that promise has already been smashed into a corner, bruised and broken beyond repair.
After Greece there can be no doubt of that. And the other separate EU-member economies are not exactly doing well either. Mario Draghi pumps €60 billion a month into the eurozone engine, but it keeps leaking just as hard and the best it can do is sputter.
In institutions such as the EU, organized like the EU, power will inevitably flow towards the center. And at some point in that process, democracy will vanish into thin air. Draghi’s €60 billion will just as inevitably benefit the power center most, and leave the periphery ever poorer. This is not an unfortunate coincidence, it’s built into the union’s structure. Which is therefore not merely undemocratic, it’s inherently anti-democratic.
Nobody in Europe ever voted for Jean-Paul Juncker -or had the chance to- to represent them, at least not in any direct democratic fashion. And nobody outside of Germany ever voted for Angela Merkel -or had the chance to- . Yet, these are arguably the most powerful people in the EU. That in a nutshell is what’s wrong with and in Europe.
Financial and political power reside with the rich and powerful nations, and they acquire more of each as they go along. This is unavoidable in the present situation. It can only be corrected by decentralization of power, but since that would run counter to what Brussels and Berlin envision (more power for themselves), it’s not going to happen. Europe will not be ‘democratized’.
Or put it this way: the only way EU nations can regain democratic values is by leaving the union. That is also the only real vote Europeans have left; a vote within the EU structure goes wasted. Ask the Greeks.
Europeans need to acknowledge that the EU has failed, and inexorably so. Schengen is already dead, walls and fences are popping up everywhere. All the rest is just make-believe. There will never be a consensus on the ‘distribution’ of the numbers of refugees. Views and national interests are too far apart.
And the vested interests in the centers of power are too strong. Merkel may be Europe’s unelected leader, but she will always put German interests before those of the 27 other nations. This may be accepted in 7 years of plenty, but it won’t be in the 7 lean years.
Meanwhile, it’s the hundreds of thousands of refugees who pay the price for the fundamental faultlines in what was supposed to bring and hold Europe together. And an interesting additional issue, which so far flies largely under the radar, arises.
First, refugee numbers keep rising, as Reuters reports:
Immigration flows to Greece surged to 48,000 in the five days to October 21, the highest weekly total so far this year, bringing the number of Mediterranean migrant arrivals in Europe to 681,000 the International Organization for Migration said today. Amin Awad, the Middle East director for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said Russian airstrikes and increased fighting around the Syrian city of Aleppo had contributed to the “dynamic of displacement”, with about 50,000 displaced, but had not contributed much to the refugee exodus. But he said the number of internally displaced people within Syria had fallen from 7.6 million people to 6.3 million, a decline that could be attributed to the refugee flows to Europe, as well as people being missed from the latest count.
48,000 in 5 days in Greece from October 17-21, 12,000 in one day in Slovenia. Over 5,000 in 5 hours on Lesvos Friday. 52 refugees died off Greece in 10 days. That’s five lives lost every day. While Brussels stand by and watches, as does Merkel, paralyzed by fears of losing votes and power at home. And when they do act, it’s most of all to try and quell the refugee flood, not to minimize the suffering.
Turkey gets offered billions to built camps on its territory, Greece is threatened into doing the same. Makes you wonder where Juncker and Merkel think the people they want to lock up in these camps will eventually wind up.
Slovenia is the latest bottleneck, after many miles of walls and and fences and razorwire have been installed elsewhere.
Around 19,500 have entered Slovenia since Friday after Hungary sealed its southern border with Croatia. Speaking after a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk and EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker, President Borut Pahor said:
We need fast assistance of the European Union. Slovenia will formally ask for additional police forces to guard the border between Slovenia and Croatia and for financial help.
The country has deployed 140 soldiers to the border to assist police and hasn’t ruled out building a fence as part of its efforts to control the influx of migrants.
And I thought: police? What police? There is no EU police force. At least not a ‘boots on the ground’ one. There’s Europol, Europe’s own Interpol, but they do intelligence. There’s the European Gendarmerie Force, but that’s a (para-)military police force. And we’re dealing with sovereign nations here, so any police force, let alone a military one, would face huge legal issues; at least if people pay attention.
Then a few days later, Reuters had this:
Slovenia said it will consider all options, including fencing off its border with Croatia, if European leaders fail to agree a common approach to the migrant crisis as thousands stream into the ex-Yugoslav republic. Migrants began crossing into Slovenia last Saturday after Hungary closed its border with Croatia. The Slovenian Interior Ministry said that a total of 47,000 had entered the country since Saturday, including some 10,000 in the past 24 hours. Slovenian officials said the country is too small and does not have enough resources to handle such large numbers of people. [..]
According to Slovenia’s interior ministry, the cost of fencing off the 670-km long border with Croatia would be about €80 million. Slovenia has asked for the EU for assistance and officials said Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland offered to send police reinforcements.
That’s 8 different countries offering to send policemen. But what status would these people have? Would they be allowed to bear arms? In a foreign sovereign nation? I’d love to see the legal documents that justify such a move. Would these foreign police officials also enjoy immunity, as Europol officers do? Under whose command would they operate?
I can imagine perhaps these new policemen, or border guards, could be Frontex, but Slovenia is not on Europe’s border. And Frontex already lacks the personnel to execute its intended policies (halt the refugees) in places where Europe does have borders.
This looks like a deep and dark legal quagmire. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Slovenia digs a little deeper still, as the Guardian noted yesterday:
Slovenia is planning to employ private security firms to help manage the flow of thousands of migrants and refugees travelling through the country toward northern Europe, a senior official has said. Bostjan Sefic, state secretary at the interior ministry, said 50-60 private security guards would assist the police where necessary. More than 76,000 people have arrived in Slovenia from Croatia in the past 10 days. More than 9,000 were in Slovenia on Monday, hoping to reach Austria by the end of the day, while many more were on their way to Slovenia from Croatia and Serbia. The emergency measure was announced by the prime minister, who described the migrant crisis as the biggest challenge yet to the EU.
If a joint solution is not found, [EU] will start breaking up, Miro Cerar warned. About 2,000 migrants waited in a field in Rigonce on the Croatian border on Monday for buses to take them to a nearby camp to be registered before they are allowed to proceed north. [..] Slovenia, the smallest country on the Balkan migration route, has brought in the army to help police. Other EU states have pledged to send a total of 400 police officers this week to help manage the flow of people. Over the past 24 hours, 8,000 people arrived in Serbia en route to northern Europe, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said.
Now I know it all perhaps depends on what tasks the various ‘additional’ crew are supposed to handle. Frontex could be doing registration and finger printing. Europol could do some stuff behind the scenes, like sniffing out alleged terrorists. But actual policemen and soldiers and even private security operating inside a sovereign European nation?
The overarching question is how this is different, how far removed is it, from German soldiers and policemen patrolling in for instance Greece? And what would be the reaction from the Greek people to such a development? Or we can turn it around: how would Germans react to Greek soldiers operating on German soil? Once you provide a legal justification for one situation, this should cover all 28 nations, and equally.
Another question is Slovenia once hires private security, how far away are we from employing some subsidiary of Blackwater to patrol the Aegean and/or other parts of the Mediterranean? Or land-based border crossings for that matter?
It will become clearer, fast, what an awful mess Brussels and Berlin have created here, because with winter approaching more refugees will fall victim to the conditions under which they’re forced to live once they’ve entered Europe. Which, in their own eyes, will still be preferable to the conditions in their homelands. And then what will we do, when dozens start dying from cold and diseases? Send in more police and military?
This is a road to a very bleak nowhere. We can only possibly return to what I started out with: “the only way to approach a crisis such as this one is to put the people first.” That is, pay for and send in aid agencies, not officers bearing arms.
And perhaps Europe should begin to ponder the possibility that this is not something it can stop at will. That the 500 million citizens of the EU may have to share their bounty with a few million newcomers. Who, on the whole, look a lot fitter, more determined and more motivated than scores of Europeans do, by the way.