Once again the EU has proved itself incapable of giving a unified and coherent policy when faced with an external issue. Syria is not only a humanitarian disaster, it is also a conflict that is having direct consequences in Europe as hundreds of thousands of Syrians are making their way to the continent to seek refuge. Europe has failed to meet the challenge of this conflict in both stages – at home and in Syria itself.
At home, the handling of the migrant crisis has been chaotic and disappointing, to say the least. It has finally been agreed upon (although not by many in Eastern Europe) to reallocate 160,000 migrants across the member states, an agreement that took months to be reached. This kind of bureaucratic delay is not acceptable in ongoing crises, especially one in which dramatic scenes of migrants walking down Hungarian motorways are being shown on screens around the world.
The number is also pathetically low compared to how many migrants are arriving in Europe. Germany alone expects to see over one million asylum applications this year. Thousands are arriving every week. Croatia has seen over 100,000 arrive in just a few weeks. While some bemoan that Europe is taking on too many migrants, Lebanon, a country of just four million, is hosting a million refugees while Turkey has over 1.5 million. Europe has not met a saturation point, and if it would find the political will, it could certainly find a home for the refugees and incorporate them into the local economy.
Meanwhile, it is becoming even more clear that the EU is unable to do anything about the root of the problem – the internal situation in Syria itself. The country has completely fallen apart since 2011 with the Assad government, rebel groups, IS, and the Kurds all fighting each other. Now Turkey, the US and its NATO allies, and Russia are all carrying out airstrikes in the country, although it seems that each one is hitting different targets. Turkey is targeting the Kurds, the Americans focus on IS, and Russia seems to be targeting the rebels so that Assad can regain influence in the country. All of these actors are now involved in Syria but the EU remains missing.
Such a complex conflict that is directly affecting Europe at home cannot be ignored. So far it has been individual member states taking any action, either through NATO or individually, as the case is with France carrying out its own strikes. Countries complain about the migrants arriving at their borders but do nothing to try and tackle the reason for which they have fled their homeland. A problem cannot be solved without looking at its root.
What the EU needs to do is to definitively“pick a side” in the conflict and decide who it thinks is best to lead Syria through the conflict and into peace. The Russians have clearly entered the conflict to support Assad, while the Americans, through NATO, along with the French, state that Assad must go. This itself is creating a potential Russia-NATO conflict on top of the civil war in Syria. The EU needs a clear strategy, and to back this strategy up with a unified political front and military mission.
The union has proved itself incapable of quickly responding to crises. It was too slow to react to Russia in Ukraine, in Libya, and now in Syria. If the EU has open borders, then it needs to act in a unified way on any migrant policy. The consequences of not doing this are clear: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia all reintroduced some kind of border controls in the past few weeks. Fears were stoked about a possible end to Schengen. Other member states, such as Belgium, stated that they would potentially reintroduce borders as well if large numbers of migrants made their way to their territories.
During the more chaotic time of the migrant crisis, it was clear that there was no coordination between the member states. While previously letting migrants pass through its territory, Hungary closed its border and stopped trains heading into Austria, creating a backlog of thousands of migrants in Budapest, most of whom eventually decided to walk to Austria instead. Then came conflicting and confusing statements by Austria and Germany on what they would do with the migrants once they reached their territory. Eventually, Germany decided to open its doors to refugees, an act that it did alone and without consulting the EU.
These scenes and moments of confusion and chaos are likely to continue, especially as the situation in Syria becomes even more complex and violent. Meanwhile, the EU has dragged its feet on coming up with a solution. Finally it has realized that it needs Turkey’s help, although it continues to ignore the rising conflict within Turkey itself between the government and the Kurds. The idea of “safe zones” for Syrian refugees being established has been discussed recently. This is still not tackling the source of the problem.
Timid actions to address the conflict are not enough. The EU needs a unified stance so that it can be at the same table as the US and Russia. If not, the bloc risks, once again, remaining in the background while the US and Russia take action in Europe’s own backyard.