Belarus, the EU and the Refugee Crisis: Opportunities Missed

A Polish soldier on the border with Belarus. Courtesy of Bumble Dee / Alamy Stock Photo

In its response to the migrant crisis on the border with Belarus, the EU missed the opportunity to present a united front.

Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak is a pessimist. Earlier this week, he told his soldiers that the dramatic standoff over the fate of migrants from the Middle East currently stranded at the border between his country and Belarus may well continue for a long time. ‘The situation on the Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly; we have to prepare for months, if not years’, he said.

Perhaps he is right; the standoff is not over. Nonetheless, there are also indications that the crisis is receding. Turkey has banned citizens from several Middle Eastern countries from boarding planes bound for Belarus. And Iraq has sent a number of aircraft to repatriate its citizens from Minsk. More significantly, there are signs that the Belarusian government is now struggling to cope with the stranded refugees it recklessly admitted into the country. So, the Belarusian leader Aleksander Lukashenko, who started this crisis in an effort to force Europe to deal with him, may wish to bring the confrontation to an end.

Clearly, this was – and to some extent remains – a major test for the EU, touching the most sensitive and intractable of all its challenges: handling migration. But even if one makes allowances for the complexity of the problem, the EU could have seized on this crisis to show that it will not be blackmailed by threats to unleash waves of migration and that, regardless of its internal differences, it will stand by and protect its individual member states. Sadly, the EU achieved neither objective, and so it does not emerge well from this sad episode.

Threat of Breached Borders

Since the migration crisis erupted, Poland and Lithuania – who also shared the burden of this humanitarian confrontation – faced three main dangers.

The first was the danger that Poland’s and Lithuania’s borders would be breached. The number of migrants who would have got through such a breach would not have been higher than 20,000, assuming that national border controls were swiftly restored.

But the breach would have attracted many more would-be refugees to Belarus; it would have provided an early confirmation to Lukashenko that his blackmailing tactics can work; and it would have discredited the governments of Poland and Lithuania, potentially feeding into the broader anti-migration political backlash in Europe.

As the crisis developed and the humanitarian plight of the migrants grew with people shivering in frozen forests, public pressure on Poland and Lithuania to admit the unfortunate refugees may have become irresistible

This danger was averted partly by the fact that Belarus’ neighbours had an early warning of what was about to happen – since for them the crisis began as early as August when the first refugees started trickling through – and partly by the current determination of the Polish and Lithuanian governments to stand firm, regardless of how big the challenge was.

Critics of the Polish government have charged Warsaw with tolerating chaos at its frontiers, bemoaning the fact that the refugee crisis plays straight into the current Polish government’s anti-migrant political narrative.

Threat of Public Pressure

The second danger was the possibility that, as the crisis developed and the humanitarian plight of the migrants grew with people shivering in frozen forests, public pressure on Poland and Lithuania to admit the unfortunate refugees may have become irresistible; the precedent for this was, after all, set by Angela Merkel’s Germany back in 2015. This may have been precisely the Belarusian dictator’s calculation: that in the face of indignant protests by NGOs and public opinion, the migrants would be admitted for ‘processing’ – exactly what Poland was determined to prevent.

All it could have taken for Poland to come under such intense pressure would have been some shocking images from the border region, indicating human suffering. Once these gained traction, the complexities of the geopolitical situation or Lukashenko’s cynical exploitation of migrants would have faded into the background. And the situation was ripe for such a development. For it became clear right from the start of the crisis that the only story the media chose to focus on was the plight of the refugees.

Unfortunately for the Belarusian dictator, the Polish government was fully aware of this danger and prevented it by the simple expedient of declaring a 3 km-wide exclusion zone near the border. The ban was heavily criticised by Poland’s own journalists. Yet there is no doubt that it prevented the Polish government from being paralysed. Migrants did die at Poland’s borders. But few pictures were available, so the government remained in control of the narrative.

A heartless approach? Undoubtedly. But without this policy, it is highly likely that, by now, the world’s media would have fingered Poland as the biggest obstacle to a ‘solution’ to the refugee crisis manufactured by Belarus.

Maintaining Unity

The third danger inherent in this crisis was the possibility that EU member states would break ranks and start dealing with both Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, his ultimate paymaster, to prevent a bigger flare-up. But preventing this danger was never within the purview of either Warsaw or Vilnius.

The EU did not simply offer help, but conditioned the help with the application of a policy which could only have resulted in thousands of migrants being admitted

Poland received the full diplomatic support of its EU partners and most other Western allies. Yet much of this was of the ‘we are concerned’ or ‘we are very concerned’ variety, with no concrete steps to assist the Polish authorities in protecting what is, after all, an EU border.

Diplomats point to the fact that Poland itself did not want assistance, since as far back as late September Warsaw appears to have rejected an offer for the deployment of Frontex officers at the border with Belarus; ironically, the EU’s border and coastguard agency established almost two decades ago is actually headquartered in Warsaw.

Do it My Way, or No Way

But that is only part of the story. For the reality is that if Poland did acquiesce to a Frontex deployment, this would have meant having to accept the European Commission’s view of how to manage refugee crises of this sort, which is that the would-be asylum seekers cannot just be rejected at the border, regardless of how they got to Europe, but must instead be admitted and processed.

Back in September, Lithuania had proposed a change of EU procedures to legalise so-called ‘pushbacks’, the practice of expelling people without allowing them to apply for asylum ‘in such situations when there’s an extreme event, and illegal migrants are being used as an instrument to put pressure on countries’, as Lithuanian Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė put it.

Frontex appears to have been involved in pushing migrants back without processing them in southern Europe, but the activities were deemed illegal, so the Lithuanian proposal had no chance of being adopted. Either way, by the time the offer to deploy Frontex in Poland was made by Brussels, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson was already pointing an accusing finger at Poland.

In short, the EU did not simply offer help, but conditioned the help with the application of a policy which could only have resulted in thousands of migrants being admitted. Or, to put it more concretely, the only way Poland could have received help from the EU in protecting its border was by consenting that its borders could be breached.

Of course, the crisis came against a backdrop of growing differences between the European Commission and Poland about the rule of law in that country and a longer dispute about Warsaw’s refusal to cooperate in sharing the burden of the 2015 migration wave which hit Europe.

There is no question that London’s approach captured the essence of the moment and answered Poland’s aspirations much more directly than the musings from Brussels

The UK was not saddled with such difficulties, so it could act in a nimbler way.

To start with, the UK offer to send Royal Engineers to the Polish border was dismissed as just a gimmick, especially since it initially included only 10 sappers. However, as the UK deployment grew to around 100 engineers, and as UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace flew to Poland to express support for the country, there is no question that London’s approach captured the essence of the moment and answered Poland’s aspirations much more directly than the musings from Brussels, or at least the musing from the EU – as opposed to NATO’s – side of Brussels.

Breaking Ranks

Even if EU governments decided not to offer physical help to Poland and Lithuania, at the very least they could have been expected to provide the political and diplomatic support that Warsaw and Vilnius needed. Yet even on this score, the Union’s position was undermined by some of its key members.

The European Commission did play a significant role in pressing Turkey to help defuse the pressure by throttling the flow of migrants to Belarus. Yet apart from that, it was Germany and France who took it upon themselves to contact Vladimir Putin, allegedly in order to prevail on the Russian leader to push Belarus into ending the crisis. And in the process, neither covered themselves with glory.

One would have thought that, after spectacularly failing this June in their previous effort to bounce the EU into a new ‘dialogue’ with Russia without bothering to consult any other EU members, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron would be diffident about calling the Russian leader without attempting to reach a common EU position beforehand.

One would also have thought that the more erudite French or German officials would have realised that the idea of Berlin and Paris discussing Poland’s borders with Moscow is – to put it delicately – something which belonged to the horrors of the previous century. Yet both the German and French leaders rushed into calling the Kremlin, firm in their conviction that they know best, and that Warsaw did not need to be consulted.

The result was utterly predictable. As Moscow’s official account of the conversations put it, ‘the Russian president drew attention to the extremely harsh treatment of refugees by Polish border guards’, and promptly suggested to Merkel and Macron that they talk to the Belarusian dictator directly. In other words, the EU should discipline the Poles, an old Moscow refrain.

A strong EU response could have acted as a deterrent against other countries using the threat of mass migration against the EU

That did not, however, prevent Merkel from telephoning the Belarusian leader not once, but twice. German officials rushed to point out that, in so doing, Merkel did not refer to the Belarusian dictator as ‘president’ but merely as ‘Herr Lukashenko’. But the fact remains that the Belarusian leader has succeeded in breaking his diplomatic isolation, precisely what he sought to obtain from this entire tragedy.

Perhaps Merkel’s concession may have helped defuse the crisis. But even if that was its outcome – and this is by no means clear now – Germany’s and France’s behaviour has allowed Belarus to derive benefit, and sow confusion inside the EU. Lukashenko’s press secretary, for instance, is now spreading false rumours claiming that Germany agreed to take in some of the refugees.

Either way, it is clear than in this crisis, the EU appears to have stuck to its long and honourable tradition on handling security questions, which is never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. A strong EU response could have acted as a deterrent against other countries using the threat of mass migration against the EU. A quick offer of help to Poland without conditionality would have acted as a reminder to those in Poland who now besmirch the Union. But none of this happened.

Instead of expressing total support for Poland, the EU tried to tell Poland what to do. Instead of upholding internal unity, France and Germany broke it for the same reason that they have done so in similar crises in the past: they condescendingly consider the central and east Europeans to be part of the problem, and certainly not ‘mature’ enough to have their views taken into account.

So instead of emerging from this trial strengthened, as it ought to have done, the EU has emerged with its reputation diminished.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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