The current refugee crisis in the EU is more than a crisis about illegal immigration. It is a humanitarian and political crisis that offers Russia interesting and valuable insights for its foreign and security policy in the coming years. Those insights are likely to hit back at the EU and its member states when dealing with Russia in international relations.
Unnoticed by many, something quite surprisingly happened in the EU over the past few months. The Dublin regulation that once provided the internal system for dealing with refugees seeking asylum in the EU broke down and, for the time being, it is unclear what will replace it. In light of border controls being reintroduced in various member states, some expect a breakdown of the Schengen agreement to follow sooner or later – an agreement that provided for some time a more or less borderless area on the territory of the EU. All this is the consequence of the beggar-thy-neighbor policy used by some EU member state, most notoriously Hungary, in the context of handling the masses of refugees seeking asylum in the EU. This together with other countries remaining silent on that particular issue show that solidarity ranks low among member states when it comes to an international crisis affecting the EU.
There are various and valid reasons why some countries, such as Greece, Hungary, Slovakia or the Baltic states, are less willing than Germany or France to offer asylum to refugees. Undeniably, hosting refugees poses logistical problems and is, in particular, a costly issue. One can argue that the behavior of Hungary and others can be traced back to the fact that a substantial economic gap still exists between the old and the new EU member states, which translates into smaller state budgets and, thus, less to spend on social aid. This is a valid issue that should be addressed within EU institutions.
However, protecting human rights, such as providing asylum to refugees, should never be up for debate within the EU. Debating human rights not only discredits EU foreign policy vis-à-vis other world powers, but a division over humanitarian values undermines any common EU security policy or strategy. This should be of concern not only to policy makers at EU level but also to policy makers in individual member states.
Moreover, it is astonishing how the EU failed to foresee the refugee crisis and prepare accordingly. But member states too can be blamed for a lack of foresight and, especially, for failing to grasp the underlying factors that drive the crisis. This is best illustrated by the way EU member states tackle the refugee crisis as essentially a domestic policy issue. In reality, we are dealing with an international crisis that should be properly addressed by an active foreign policy at national and EU level.
Since the fall of the Gadhafi regime in Libya and the wars in Iraq and Syria, a growing number of failed states surround the EU. Such an environment calls for an active foreign policy by member states and the EU, who were actively supporting regime change in those states, assuming that rule of law and economic prosperity would somehow follow magically without their further engagement. This was illusionary. Believing that other countries, such as Turkey or the United States, will selflessly resolve those challenges for the EU and its members is another illusion. Those countries have their own foreign policy agenda, which is likely to counter EU interests and values. The refugee crisis in the EU calls for a military and economic strategy providing peace and prosperity to a region that, whether we like it or not, neighbors the EU.
For Russia, the refugee crisis offers interesting insights when it comes to formulating an effective foreign and security policy vis-à-vis the EU and its member states. By pointing to the refugee crisis in the EU, Russia can keep blaming the EU and its member states of xenophobic behavior and of applying double standards in international relations.
Moreover, Russia knows that the EU and its member states are highly divided on certain policy issues. In that regard, Russia understands that by putting enough pressure on individual EU members, core parts of the EU system can break. Finally, Russia is aware that the EU is unable to deal with the failed and failing states that surround it. Here, Russia can fill a gap and gain international prestige with an active foreign and security policy in that region. We might criticize Russia’s growing engagement in Syria. However, if Russia succeeds in fighting the terror regime Islamic State and in exerting a stabilizing role, even on very a limited basis, it can gradually reshape the region in its favor as it does currently in its relations with Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. More important for the EU and its members, Russia can use its active involvement in Syria as leverage in negotiations with the EU on other political issues, such as Ukraine and Georgia.
To conclude, the refugee crisis in the EU is more than a crisis about illegal immigration. It is a humanitarian crisis that reveals a major divide on core values between EU member states. This divide undermines the formulation of a common EU foreign and security policy necessary to resolve the refugee crisis and tackle its origins. Moreover, the crisis highlights a substantial lack of solidarity among EU member states. Given the insights that the refugee crisis provides for Russia, it is only a question of time until the lack of solidarity within the EU will be used against the EU and its members.
Idir Laurent Khiar is a Swiss political scientist with a PhD from the University of Zurich. Khiar is is currently Head of the Advisory Board of the United Nations Association (UNA) Estonia. In that role, he acts as a political analyst and expert in international relations with a focus on trade, energy and security politics.
Editor: S. Tambur