Stefano Braghiroli: Greetings from the Balkans, Mr Juncker… ({{commentsTotal}})

Estonia is facing some tough decisions about its role in solving the refugee crisis. A more engaged and constructive action from Estonia and its neighbors does not mean that the governments will have to act against the very interests of their own people. On the contrary, by playing a constructive role in the game – with enhanced credibility and prestige – they will be able to achieve at least suboptimal results and minimize the least preferred options, Stefano Braghiroli writes in his opinion article.

If I had not listened to Mr Juncker’s State of the Union address in front of the European Parliament a few days ago, I would have suggested a completely different title for this piece. But when I heard the Commission President’s reassuring words to grant “the security and the borders of EU member states” directed to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, “our Eastern member states, notably the Balkans,”* I could not help but think that this was more than an insignificant gaffe. It was a Freudian slip. The issue that we are addressing – of which the refugee crisis is only the peak of the iceberg – has two dimensions, necessarily intertwined. It has to do with both need for solidarity and search for centrality.

Solidarity represents one of the founding principles at the basis of European integration; if not the key one. Without institutionalizing solidarity the European project would not have come to life. Although, too often, solidarity has been more in words than in practice, more declared than pursued. Denying it would mean denying the very nature of the European project, which is chiefly about sharing “in good times and in bad”. Over the past months, appeals to solidarity among the EU Member states have been heard in relation to the Eurozone crisis, the growing instability at the Eastern border of the EU, and – lastly – the humanitarian emergency determined by floods of refugees fleeing from their devastated countries in the Middle East.

Debate on multi-culturalism and immigration

Looking at it from the perspective of the little Balkan country of Estonia, much has changed in the public debate over the past months. A growing number of the headlines – previously dominated by the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s games there – are focusing on the debate on multi-culturalism and immigration, often echoing catastrophist tones and (more or less) generic threats. Slowly, the public debate has acquired a higher level of sophistication and has managed to increasingly distance itself from blatant populist and grossly racist appeals by a few rampant xenophobic leaders and some, once respectable, politicians now captured by racial ecstasy. Last week, an important demonstration was held in Tallinn’s Freedom Square to assert that not only does a “Tolerant Estonia” exist, but that it represents the majority in the country. The task of the vocal and colorful crowd for the months to come will be to shake and activate the silent majority of tolerant Estonia. Here Estonia’s government and mainstream parties can play a very important role by supporting a more aware expressions of their country’s civil society.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the issue of refugees fleeing from their devastated countries can no longer be minimized as a problem of a few member states, neither in words, nor in facts. July’s plan to relocate 60,000 men, women, and children based on the goodwill of the EU member states has already been overcome by the events, with the opening of a second migration route in the Balkans.

As announced by Commission President Juncker during his speech, a more ambitious plan of binding quotas to relocate three times the number of refugees proposed in July was formalized on Monday during the meeting of the EU Ministers for home affairs. While Germany and France are expected to cover up to 75 percent of the quotas, every member state will be required to contribute according to its capacities. Fines are expected for non-complying member states.

While the Juncker plan appears to replicate the divisions witnessed in July between what Rumsfeld used to define as “old” and “new” Europe, chauvinistic opt-outs might prove costly, especially for small states. Juncker (and Berlin’s) humanitarian approach to the crisis and Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban with his accent on securitization seem to well synthesize the defining traits of two emerging fronts.

Siding with one or the other might produce mid to long terms implications far beyond the refugee crisis, which have to do with trust and credibility. These are very valuable and scarce resources at the European level that, so far, the Baltic countries have secured with their fair play in the EU arena. I will argue here that overindulging in Orban’s “wall-building” rhetoric might be – not only ethically problematic – but also risky in terms of long term costs and benefits. On the other hand, political impasse and/or a passive role in the inter-governmental negotiations on the Commission proposal might be equally tricky.

Here the idea of solidarity has two dimensions: one among and toward the EU Member states; and one of humanitarian nature, toward the refugees. From an ethical point of view, an open opposition to the definition of refugee quotas or void expressions of solidarity are seen by many partners as unacceptable and – in the words of the New York Times – reflecting “Eastern Europe’s compassion deficit.”

In his speech, Juncker referred to Europe as a continent of refugees, torn by wars throughout its millennial history. The fact that the last decades have been relatively peaceful for most of us within the borders of the EU does not mean that we have the right to forget what has been the rule in Europe for centuries. This appears, in a way, even truer when we look at the eastern flank of our Union, where, many argue, World War II ended only in 1990-91. Had the hundreds of thousands of Magyars fleeing from the repression of 1956 Hungarian revolution better credentials to receive a shelter in Austria, Western Europe and North America? Were the many thousands of Balts fleeing from the red Army or Czechoslovaks from the repression of the Prague spring more entitled to protection than today’s Syrians? Do the ISIS blood-thirsty killers and head-cutters active in Libya or Syria appear more compassionate than the red army? I find it hard to believe.

Some still say that, although very sad and tragic, refugees are not a European problem, as it happens outside of our borders. This argument, although highly simplistic, might still have some credit if Europe and (more broadly) the West would have played no role in the political changes in the North Africa and the Middle East (chiefly Syria, Libya, and Iraq). But we know that this is not the case and that ISIS and other jihadist groups did not appear overnight. For this reason, it would be hypocritical not to at least contribute to solving a problem for the emergence of which nobody can claim full innocence.

In order to get solidarity, one needs to give solidarity

There is another dimension of solidarity which appears more interest-oriented. It relates to solidarity among and towards the EU member states, and it basically implies, simply put, that in order to get solidarity, one needs to give solidarity. This touches upon a point of key relevance for the Central and Eastern European (CEE) and Baltic countries, especially given the current unstable security situation along EU’s eastern border. Following the developments of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s more aggressive stance toward its neighbors, many CEE chancelleries have asked for a united and assertive answer from the EU and NATO allies. Despite a considerable delay in taking a stance, a united position and common actions (which some might deem as insufficient) have been taken, and so far maintained, by the partners. The package includes a few rounds of sanctions towards Russia, the annulment of Moscow’s strategic partnership with the EU, almost 2 billion euros to support the democratic growth of Ukraine, NATO patrolling the Baltic airspace, and growing disposition of the allies to consider bases in CEE counties. It is not always easy to distinguish between EU and NATO partners’ commitments as twenty-two members of the former are also allies of the latter.

Not all the member states – due to historical determinants and matters of geographical distance – fully understand the challenge posed to the continental security by Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Many Western capitals (Paris, Madrid, Rome, etc.) do not appear highly enthusiastic of the EU-imposed sanctions towards Russia, which appear to determine very costly economic losses, especially in times of crises. Despite doubts and discomfort no member state – not even Greece or Hungary[!] – has so far factually broken the European unity. Those concerned about Russia’s bullying actions should be aware that by adopting a confrontational stance towards the partners in the refugee crisis and by mimicking Orban’s claim that this is a not a European problem, they might provide the right opportunity to the skeptical governments to disengage from EU’s current stance towards Russia. This could have very problematic implications for CEE and Baltic security.

Adopting a less European, and more unilateral, stance on the refugee issue might prove politically hazardous and strategically counterproductive. Knowing his admiration for Putin as a champion of “illiberal democracy”, it is hard to doubt that – in Orban’s understanding – not only are the refugees a “German problem”, but Eastern Ukraine and Crimea too are a “Ukrainian problem”, not a European one. That goes pretty much against every effort perpetrated over the past months by the Baltic and Polish diplomacies to address the Ukrainian dossier within a European framework.

The bad reputation of the Hungarian Prime Minister as a sort of political pariah seems well known in the European circles. His actions against freedom of press, civil liberties, political opposition and his crusaders’ tones during the current crisis – echoed by other CEE leaders – are in total contrast with the image of functioning liberal democracies that the Baltic countries have secured over years. Inevitably, opposing the Juncker’s proposal, rather than engaging with it, would push the Baltics closer – at least in the eyes of many observers – to Orban’s field. Such an approach would clearly jeopardize their effectiveness and credibility in promoting their priorities. Ultimately, should the quota system be approved despite a strong opposition from CEE, this might contribute to reproduce the stereotypical idea – already unfairly represented by a number of medias – of a persisting cleavage between “old” and “new” Europe. The idea of a clash of values between liberal and progressive West and traditional and conservative uniform East would “play straight into Putin’s hands,” as suggested recently by Edward Lucas.

Encouraging signals of a more engaged and constructive CEE are visible, especially following the presentation of the Juncker plan, with Polish Prime Minister Kopacz saying that her country is considering raising the number of migrants and declarations in the same direction from the governments of all three Baltic countries. The game remains open and each country’s official stance will be clear only as the decision-making process will develop. Needless to say, a more engaged and constructive action from Estonia and its Baltic neighbors does not mean that their governments will have to act against the very interests of their own countries. On the contrary, by playing a constructive role in the game – with enhanced credibility and prestige – they will be able to achieve at least suboptimal results and minimize the least preferred options.

Ideally the political action should be conducted at two different levels. At the institutional level, within the framework of the ongoing negotiations and in return for a responsible behavior, Estonia and its neighbors will have more chances to make sure that both economic and social factors are effectively considered in the final computation of member states’ quotas. Moreover, in the light of their exceptional ethnic pattern, they might prove more successful in promoting their preferences in terms of which specific groups of refugees to prioritize. They will also be able to push for the definition of clear and rigorous standards to differentiate between actual refugees and economic migrants, making sure the confusion between the two groups is minimized. This is an aspect which appears to be of key concern in the national political debate.

At the level of public opinion an equally important stance should be taken to minimize the room for populist discourse and xenophobic forces, recently defined as a potential threat to national security by the Estonian defense chief Riho Terras. The public institutions should explain in a clear and transparent way how the negotiations at the European level proceed, what are Estonia’s red tapes, and how the relocation process will actually work. The mainstream political forces should avoid playing with voters’ irrational fears, and rather go hand in hand with the more active sectors of civil society to ensure the consolidation of a more aware public debate. An effort to speak clear and frank might determine short-term losses of a few percentage points among the voters, but it will disarm the schizophrenic arguments of potentially aggressive xenophobic movements. It will also prevent the electoral consolidation of populism, Euroskepticism, and xenophobia, which might pose more dangerous challenges to the political stability of the country than a few hundred refugees.

We need more Central and Eastern Europe in EU, not less

To conclude, I would link this discussion to CEE and Baltic states' search for centrality, aimed to eventually decommission the label of “new Europe”. As Juncker said, “we need more Union in our Europe.” We also need more Central and Eastern Europe in our Union, not less. One of the stunning aspects of the State of the Union address was the almost complete absence of CEE. I'm referring not only to the embarrassing institutional lack as – given the absence of Council President Tusk – no party group leader or EU institutional representative from the so-called “new Europe” could be spotted, but also to the almost complete absence of CEE from the focus of debates, of which, Juncker’s Balkan Freudian slip has been a minor, but visible, indicator. Given the high relevance of the ongoing debate for the future of the EU, the CEE member states need to play an active and constructive role in the negotiations and rightfully claim the centrality that they deserve in the decision-making process, rather than opting for sterile political isolationism and following Orban’s path towards isolation.

The debate on the refugee quotas and renewed asylum system seems to represent only the tip of a much larger iceberg. An indicator of this is Germany (and others’) temporary exit from Schengen regime – in an attempt to push for a European management of the crisis – that puts into question one of the key achievements of the EU. We are witnessing a critical moment in the process of European integration, as a number of different crises (from the refugee flow, to security, to Eurozone) are challenging simultaneously the results so far achieved together and are favoring the re-emergence of national egoisms. The history of the EU teaches us that the Union has overcome similar critical moments in the past by opting for more integration – that is, more solidarity among our states. The alternative is disintegration and all the related dark clouds on the horizon. In this existential challenge that the EU is witnessing the contribution of CEE is vital, as every attempt to renovate our common house with the exclusion of half of the members of the household is inevitably destined to fail.


* The Balkan nature of the Baltics was stressed a few times in the speech before somebody wisely suggested to the President that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are not former Yugoslav republics.


Stefano Braghiroli is a lecturer at Institute of Government and Politics and at the European College of the University of Tartu.

Editor: M. Oll

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