Erkki Bahovski: The difficult immigrant question (5)

Mediterranean refugees
Erkki Bahovski
6/15/2015 3:05 PM
Category: Opinion

The quota proposed by the European Commission – 1,064 refugees for Estonia – has sparked very intense debate on these shores about Estonia’s options, European solidarity and the future of the Estonian language and culture.

There is certainly no reason for panic. Estonia will have an opportunity to have its say and use diplomacy to push for a reduction in the quota or a review of the entire system. But to know what to offer potential allies – or what to refuse – we have to know our possibilities.

It’s clear that 1,064 is too high a number for Estonia. But it isn’t a very good plan to look skyward, pout and say we will accept zero refugees. Estonia has to determine its position, and it must be arrived at in cooperation with different agencies. To find that position, we will need multifaceted cooperation between the agencies and political will. Naturally, we would also need to know whether the proposal from the European Commission is final, or whether changes will be forthcoming.

Once Estonia’s position is clear, negotiations can begin. Smart negotiators leave some kind of margin, bargaining room. That means we will appear ready to increase the number of refugees we accept, even though we know right from the beginning that such a number is right for us. But somewhere there will also have to be a red line that Estonia cannot cross.

The actual negotiations are starting only now. There is no doubt the European Commission’s resettlement plan will meet opposition in other member states as well. As decisions are made by qualified majority, Estonia cannot veto the plan by itself – it will need allies. Negotiations will have to be carried out simultaneously with the Commission and other member states to find the best possible solution.

The above description of negotiating strategy seems very insensitive when you consider that refugees are flesh and blood people, and that many of them have lost their homes. In addition, the European Union itself is partly to blame for the hostilities on the southern rim and eastern shore of the Mediterranean: it has failed to promote democracy and ensure stability there. But it would be wrong to accuse only the EU, as the Arab world and Middle Eastern countries have long been the theatre for great geopolitical games. Ordinary people are the ones who suffer, though.

This is precisely why the speed at which the resettlement plan is resolved is essential. Even though many of those being relocated are already in Europe, it is no land of milk and honey for them. And every day that we negotiate with regard to the immigrants, people continue to die or are being forced to flee their homes.

The quota system is too mechanical. It doesn’t take into account the wishes, traditions and specific characteristics of either the member states or the immigrants. But at the moment there is nothing better and it is generally a worse plan not have a plan at all. Furthermore, immigration is at the top of the agenda in most European Union member states, and thus it has to be dealt with at the EU level. For Estonia, immigration brings back painful historical memories, when massive flows of immigrants streamed in from across the USSR. People are concerned and the government should not ignore that fact. A difficult path lies ahead, between historical fears, European values and Realpolitik.

This comment first aired on Retro FM’s Europe news. Erkki Bahovski is the Editor-in-Chief of Diplomaatia, a foreign policy magazine published by the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS).

S. Tambur

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